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Highlighting the Lebanese operator's achievements in 2017, in an exclusive interview with Telecom Review, Emre Gurkan, CEO, touch, shed light on touch's leadership position in the mobile telecommunications market, as well on the company's plans and aspirations for the upcoming year, notably in terms of digitization.

Can you highlight some of touch's main achievements in 2017? What are your hopes and plans for 2018?
2017 has been a strong year both operationally and financially:

  • Market share reached an all-time high of ~54% while maintaining touch as the leading mobile telecommunications operator in Lebanon.
  • We have been working closely with the Ministry of Telecommunications whereby we have maintained growth across key financial indicators.
  • Touch teams are continuously working on network enhancement via ongoing LTE rollout and 3G enhancement.
  • LTE customers grew by 2.4 times in the past 12 months (520K active customers).
  • Data consumption per customer increased by 75% versus last year reaching 1.6 GBs per customer per month.
  • Touch is now positioned at the forefront of Digital and Innovation through MIC ventures, TIP program and partnerships with Booking.com, Antwork, Anghami, Angels Lebanon, Seedstars and others
  • Touch launched a full digital value proposition and experience through the successful Student Plan reaching around 50K activations.
  • New IT platforms were deployed to further enhance customer experience.

Moving forward, our strategy is to become the Digital Network Ambassador (DNA) by automating all internal processes and digitizing customer experience and the core capabilities in order to expand into the digital ecosystem.

Our hopes for 2018 are for touch to not only meet market demands, but also elevate Lebanon as a regional innovator, taking the country to the forefront of telecommunications' technology. 

Our pillar objectives are to enhance people's lifestyle, provide a special place to work for our employees, contribute actively to the community, and deliver value to all our stakeholders alike.

Startups are a key element to boost innovation in the country. How is touch committed toward startups and entrepreneurs?
Our digital transformation strategy is rooted in innovation, contributing to a networked society and fostering a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem in Lebanon. Supporting and introducing futuristic concepts touch is innovating in house while also locking down powerful partnerships that allow the unfolding of the digital era.

We also aspire to offer Lebanese entrepreneurs the tools and support that they need to realize their ambitions and kick-start their very own startups. Touch is continuously pushing for Lebanese talents by partnering with key startup competitions and business accelerators in the country and the region.

We have recently supported the MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Startup competition Lebanon pre-boot camp, where 20 Lebanese teams have qualified to the semi-finalists, the highest number among all participating countries, which is a testament to Lebanese and their entrepreneurial spirit.

Effectively, we have opened up our network and business to entrepreneurs. We have helped accelerate local startups such as FOO, Anghami and Element N through partnerships.

We recently launched the touch Innovation Program (TIP). Through this program, we will be hosting six startups and entrepreneurs every six months, providing them with mentoring and access to our network, services and people so that they can test and grow their ideas.

We have also partnered with Antwork to provide a co-working space at the touch LAB in downtown for startup activities, workshops, talks and work-related events. We have also partnered with Angels Lebanon and OTV to promote Lebanese entrepreneurs' success stories in a 36-episode production named "Techtales" that we will use on different media channels.

In addition to that, touch supported several related conferences during the past year such as, Seedstars World, touch-Little Engineer IoT program, and the Angels Lebanon Network.

To complement all our efforts in supporting the start-up ecosystem in the country, touch participated in MIC Ventures, a venture capital fund that will be investing in promising entrepreneurs in Lebanon. A project that would not have been possible without the vision of HE PM Saad Hariri and the support of HE Minister of Telecommunications Jamal Jarrah to elevate Lebanon to become a leading digital ecosystem in the region.

At Zain Group, we have taken a bold decision five years ago to innovate through identification of and investment in funds and startups to differentiate ourselves and generate revenues from digital. We have gone to conclude four transactions so far: MEVP, Wamda, Earlybird and Colle Capital Partners. The majority of the companies we have invested in are either based in Lebanon or of Lebanese origin, and Zain Group has collaborated with touch on some of these projects.

We, both Zain and touch, will bring this experience to MIC Ventures, since we understand very well how the start-up ecosystem works and the tremendous value it creates for economies and societies.

What is touch showcasing in the Mobile World Congress this year?
Touch is participating in the Lebanese pavilion that the Ministry of Telecommunications organizes for the first time. Touch's delegation includes representatives from several areas (commercial, customer care, IT and technical) that will be looking for potential partners and technologies that will help the company achieve its mission to become the Digital Network Ambassador by 2022.

Touch will be showing its 2017 milestones and success stories and introducing its strategy going forward.

The network's quality is a crucial element for consumers. How does touch manage to continuously improve its network's quality and data coverage?
When touch introduced 4.5G technology, it selected two frequencies: 800MHz to ensure data coverage everywhere and 1800MHz to deliver high speed connectivity using carrier aggregations. The field results demonstrated an average speed improved by four times at the applications level, while the total throughput capacity has increased nine times. This has evolved the user experience radically, whereby customers on 4.5G technology are getting immediate access with fast connection almost all the time across the whole network.

As for the 3G technology, the migration of large portion of data traffic to 4G has relieved the 3G resources, which resulted slightly in a better performance for 3G users.

Furthermore, touch kicked-off a 3G coverage enhancement plan for the rural areas by upgrading the sites with U900 carriers for deep indoor signal penetration. Dual carriers feature will also be activated to improve data speed and maximize the usage of 3G resources.

On top of this, touch has evolved its monitoring and management systems from classical systems into the service quality management platforms, where KQIs (key quality indicators) are monitored and evaluated to take the appropriate optimization actions. With this concept, touch has moved from the "traditional sites rollout" approach to the "quality of experience and capacity management".

Touch is involved in many corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives in Lebanon. Can you highlight some of them? In your opinion, how important is it for a telecom operator to uphold its CSR policy?
Touch has been actively involved in the community throughout the years through our corporate sustainability program "Positive touch", which aspires to betterment of the Lebanese society through innovatively focusing on 5 pillars: education, health, women empowerment, environment, as well as youth and innovation.

We believe that, as the leading mobile telecom operator in Lebanon, it is our duty to give back to the community which we are part of. Also, to ensure that whatever actions we take, whatever products and services we launch, whatever activities we initiate will help foster this culture of ‘shared positive values' and build bridges between Lebanese and will have a positive impact on socio-economic development as well as environmental preservation.

We had very successful initiatives during the past year which we will maintain and grow in 2018:

  1. Our long-standing partnership with the Children's Cancer Center of Lebanon (CCCL) has raised over $500,000 through the "Light a Candle" platform that collects donations on the touch app, in addition to internal programs that help raise funds to support the children fighting cancer.
  2. In support of the National Reforestation Plan, we launched touch forest in 2016. We have planted around 8,700 trees so far while also involving the local communities and educating them on modern practices in reforestation, monitoring seedling survival post-planting, as well as maintenance and management activities.
  3. Touch has partnered with "Teach for Lebanon" (TFL) and launched of e-touch, an educational program that aims to support Lebanon's underprivileged children in rural areas. Touch has equipped 2 schools with computer centers, giving students access to educational data and information online. "Teach for Lebanon" will also assign fellows in the schools for a period of two years who will teach in the schools and manage the computer labs, teaching new skills to the teachers and ensuring that students receive quality education while developing their talents, critical and creative thinking, teamwork and problem-solving abilities.
  4. We launched an innovative road safety campaign called ‘Don't Drive' and we collaborated with digital startups Careem, Carpolo and Onlivery to provide special offers and rewards as alternatives to driving.
  5. Touch partnered with the Maroun Semaan Faculty of Engineering and Architecture (MSFEA) at the American University of Beirut (AUB) to launch the touch - MSFEA Startup Award to encourage a spirit of entrepreneurship among university students, specifically targeting fourth-year engineers approaching graduation who already have innovative projects and ideas in mind.
  6. We hosted Riyada's Inaugural Youth Innovation Summer Program at touch LAB in downtown Beirut. The program exposed a group of participants, aged between 15 and 21, to social entrepreneurship in a project-based and hands-on manner, where they were asked to develop a mobile application to solve a real social problem related to one of the United Nation's 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Touch is managed by Zain, what additional value does this bring to the Lebanese market?
Touch benefits a lot from Zain Group's regional expertise providing telecommunication and mobile data services to over 46.6 million customers in the MENA region. It is of great benefit to both touch and the telecommunications and ICT industry in general because instead of reinventing the wheel, a lot of solutions that touch delivers rely on knowledge transfer based on experience and expertise that Zain Group has gathered. Most of those projects are aligned with Zain's strategy and vision: building a sustainable and innovative digital communications company serving consumers and enterprises with a rich and simple mobile experience. In addition to providing a differentiated customer experience, maintaining an aggressive operational effectiveness, achieving business growth and developing our people.

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