Labeling an operator as a happiness provider is unconventional. However, Marwan Hayek, CEO and Chairman, Alfa has been striving to make customers happy, thus becoming, according to his words, a Happiness Provider or HP.
In an exclusive interview with Telecom Review, Alfa CEO and Chairman lauded the operator's success during Lebanese parliamentary elections day and emphasized that 5G will be a game changer in Lebanon and abroad.
Alfa is well distinguished for its patriotic identity, always present at Lebanon's most significant moments. Recently, the long-awaited parliamentary elections were held and you contributed greatly to this day. How did Alfa contribute towards making this day a success?
This was a historical day for Lebanon because elections were held for the first time after almost 9 years. Alfa was present during this historic day and was up to it in terms of performance, capability and readiness to carry the traffic and enable the Lebanese people to communicate. Our role was major at two levels.
Overseas, we provided connectivity between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Lebanese embassies abroad where the Lebanese diaspora was able to vote for the first time in history. This has allowed the Ministry to supervise the electoral process and monitor it live.
At the internal level, we provided the secure data connectivity between the Ministry of Interior and fifteen major elections counting centers in Lebanon, which allowed real time and secure reporting of the results especially in terms of counting the votes and reporting back the results. Moreover, all of the Media and reporters in particular, relied on our 4G network for live streaming to update the public about the voting procedure and operations in all of the Lebanese regions, and in remote areas.
We consider this day as a major success because zero outage happened on our network which was running seamlessly 24/7. Our teams were on the ground monitoring proactively and working to avoid any problem that might affect the network's performance or stop the people from communicating.
How did the elections day affect data and voice traffic?
During the day of elections which happened on a Sunday, voice traffic increased 40% compared to the average of 3 past Sundays whereas data traffic remained unaffected at its normal daily level at 88 terabytes but was redistributed according to regions and the flow of people within the country. The increase in voice traffic and stability of data traffic resulted in positive revenues which is one of the reasons why this day was successful for us.
How does Lebanon compare to other countries in the MENA region and the world when it comes to internet speeds?
We are very proud of the fact that for the last six quarters, we have been scoring very positively in terms of ranking on internet throughput especially on 4G, according to two reports elaborated by two different entities - OpenSignal and Ookla.
As per OpenSignal's report, we have moved from the fifth position in the region to the second position in the last two quarters. At the global level, we are ranked number 30 out of 88 countries with a throughput of around 26 Mbps.
On the other hand, Ookla's monthly report showed that Alfa and Lebanon are number three in the region which is not very different from the numbers of OpenSignal's report.
This shows that the efforts deployed in the past couple of years and the investments we've been making in terms of introducing state-of-the art technologies such as 4G, LTE Advanced and lately with the recent tests we conducted on 5G for the first time in Lebanon, are paying off by improving Lebanon's ranking and our customer's experience and positively contributing to making people happier on a daily basis. People rely on the connectivity we provide and their level of satisfaction is highly dependent on what we are capable of offering in terms of high speed internet. This is our commitment to the Lebanese people especially being the Goal Keeper of UN's SDG 9 (Industry, innovation and Infrastructure), and working with UN's Global Compact Lebanon to champion this goal nationally.
What are the elements that make Alfa, as per your words, a "happiness provider" to the Lebanese people?
We're very proud to say that we have moved from a traditional mobile network operator to a digital service provider and to, lately, what I personally label as a HP or Happiness Provider which is a combination of the Human side of telco and digital innovation at its best.
It has been proven scientifically that the level of stress is highly dependent on the level of service you're getting from your "digital services provider". So, the better the services are, the more satisfied and happy you'll be as a customer and end user.
This correlation between happiness and service efficiency has led us to label Alfa as a happiness provider. We have to provide the people with the level of services that they are expecting and that will make them happy because they will be able to achieve their goals at the level of day-to-day business, communication and skills enhancement. Today, 95% of Alfa subscribers are using smartphones and more than 50% of those handsets are LTE capable hence our subscribers are enjoying speeds that can reach up to 250 mbps, and this means that through our steady connection and exceptional speeds enabled across Lebanon, we are fully catering to the happiness of our users who rely on our network and high speeds to communicate, share experiences and express their opinion seamlessly, rapidly and without any interruptions.
Moreover, Alfa has been taking numerous initiatives that make people happy such as helping NGOs and supporting people that we call "People with Iron will" rather than "disabled". At Alfa, we firmly believe that those people have an Iron will to overcome the problems and difficulties they face on a daily basis, in order to be productive in the society. This is one of the means by which we're contributing to the happiness of a very dear segment of our society by supporting their cause and helping in reaching their full integration.
In addition, Alfa contributes to various initiatives. We're associated to almost each and every single positive event and activity taking place in Lebanon - in particular, we support art festivals which position Lebanon as a hub for tourism and culture; we also support events related to the cinema industry; we are very proud to be the main sponsor of the latest movie of renowned Lebanese director Nadine Labaki that won the Jury Special prize in Cannes Festival. We are a major supporter of national sports and we enabled through our gold sponsorship the free screening of all 64 World Cup matches to all Lebanese people at their homes through the national Lebanese TV. We support the national football league, volleyball and basketball championships with the aim of contributing to their success and increasing the level of engagement from sport fans. We also engage in activities of national scale that connect Lebanese to their homeland such as sponsoring gatherings that aim to connect the Lebanese diaspora to Lebanon and encourage them to come back and invest in our beautiful country and revive it.
As you see, through this contribution and as a committed corporate citizen, we are associated with activities and events that contribute directly or indirectly to the happiness of the Lebanese people.
Is Alfa currently focusing completely on 5G or is there work that still has to be done at the level of 3G, 4G and 4.5G enhancements as well?
Basically, we are focusing on all of these technologies like any other operator. We forecast that 5G rollout will take place next year. In the meantime, of course we cannot neglect the existing infrastructure and technologies. That is why, we started in 2018 a massive expansion plan on 3G, 4G and 4G+. We're expanding our network by almost 50% by adding additional 500 sites to the network which will enable us to cover extensively 100% of the Lebanese territory and population. This will give us more capacity, more reach to people and better throughput. Hopefully, and this is our goal, we will rank first in the region.
When it comes to 5G, we have demonstrated recently during Telecom Review Summit held on April 2018 in Beirut, the first 5G data session in Lebanon where we reached a speed of 25 Gigabits per sec. This is mainly what we'll be focusing on in the next year. We aim at commercially rolling out 5G as soon as it gets commercially available which means the moment the suppliers are capable of delivering new 5G sites and operations, we'll be among the first to roll them out and allow people to benefit from this technology and start experiencing 5G with Alfa.
We believe that 5G is a game changer on which depends our sustainability. It will enable us to achieve high speeds and latency as low as 5 milliseconds. In addition, 5G will drive IoT adoption in Lebanon as well as abroad.
Alfa's distribution channel has been rapidly expanding with the inauguration of Alfa stores across all Lebanese territory. Why is it for Alfa to expand its distribution channel?
It goes back again to the happiness provider concept and strategy that we have adopted recently. We cannot claim that we are a happiness provider if people cannot reach us and interact with us.
We have started expanding our Alfa stores and distribution channels. We are uplifting our stores' concept making them customer-friendly in order for people - the youth in particular - to come and enjoy a unique experience of end-to-end interaction with the operator.
Currently, we have 10 Alfa stores in Lebanon and are aiming at doubling this number by end of this year to reach almost every city. We are planning as well to double this number again in the next couple of years because we want to be very close to our customers - proximity is highly important for them to interact with us and enjoy the level of service and unique experience we're offering there. By end of this year, we will have 20 Alfa stores just like the one located at Alfa's headquarters.
Data protection is currently on top of telcos' agendas. What are the measures undertaken by Alfa to protect its subscribers' data?
Allow me to stress that privacy and customers' data are a top priority for Alfa. Internally, some people have attempted to violate the privacy of our customers' data, but they were fired the next day. So even though we have huge amount of data, we know the level of access of each employee "Who can access what?" and we have strict policies in place to ensure the proper implementation of this rule.
Recently, we have signed a three-year plan on information security that will enable us to have our own SoC (Security operation Center) along with other plans that are aimed at further protecting privacy and preserving our customers' data so that they can rest assured that when dealing with Alfa, their data is well preserved.
Do you think that the role of operators has diminished with the rise of OTTs? What are the new sources of revenues for operators to compensate the losses endured because of OTTs?
It's true that OTT has impacted our revenues in the last couple of years. However, even though some were forecasting that operators will eventually disappear, people are still heavily relying on us in terms of delivering the service, enabling innovation and providing the infrastructure for OTTs to reach their end customers and targets.
The losses in revenues that we have witnessed in the last couple of years due to OTTs have been partially compensated by data uptake and the different new services we are offering. In addition, our transformational journey to a Digital Service Provider is transforming Alfa to a driver of innovation and a main player in making things happen as we move to IoT and augmented reality which should have a positive impact on our top line as well. As a matter of fact, we are creating the needed operational agility and efficiency shifting to a digital customer centric approach based on innovation. Our goal is to become an enabler of Internet of Things (IoT) integration to serve third parties needs and be a main contributor to the growth of the digital economy in all its means.
In my opinion, 5G and IoT will be major game changers in terms of accelerating revenues. As per recent studies, we forecast around 2.9% increase of the GDP in the next 15 years, out of which 10% will come from 5G. In the case of Lebanon, this percentage is equivalent to an increase of up to USD2 to 3 billion in the GDP.
2020 will be a turning point for all telecommunications sectors in the world in terms of 5G deployment. Will Lebanon be up to the challenge?
We are doing everything it takes to be ready to embrace the 5G technology the moment it is available for commercial deployment. In 2016, when we announced our 4G+ deployment plan, we signed at the same time MoUs with our telco suppliers to make our infrastructure and network ready to embrace 5G whenever it happens.
This year, we proved with our 5G demos undertaken at the Telecom Review Summit and subsequently at our head office that the MoUs we signed two years ago were the right thing to do because we made the first session on our network and proved our readiness to be the first to embrace the next technology and what's after it.
However, we won't stop here. We are making the infrastructure ready so that hopefully, by mid-2019, we will see the first few 5G sites deployed in Lebanon by Alfa, as I said.