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2020 has been very challenging year, however Ooredoo was up to the challenge and was capable of supporting its customers. Fatima Al-Kuwari, chief consumer officer, Ooredoo spoke to Telecom Review about the measures that the Qatari operator took during these difficult times and the role it has played. She also highlighted the challenges she faced as a woman in ICT.

How was the impact of all the challenges that emerged in 2020 on Ooredoo? And how did you support your customers?

By any standard, 2020 was a challenging year. Internationally, governments and organisations that had been war-gaming and planning for pandemics since the SARS outbreak of 2005 were often caught flat-footed, so you would imagine it impacting the telecoms sector too. Sure enough, parts of the sector that rely on physical spaces and face-to-face contact — such as retail outlets — fared badly. Likewise, revenue from call roaming dropped as travelling was sharply attenuated.

Fortunately, the infrastructure and provision that Ooredoo had in place proved up to the task of supporting businesses and customers as they moved increasingly online, for communication, education and entertainment purposes. The system we put in place in less unprecedented years withstood the increase in demand, and we are very proud of our contribution. Secondly, our long-standing approach to corporate social responsibility meant we were in a strong position to assist embattled communities and front-line workers (even as CSR itself was morphing into Environmental, Social and Governance – ESG).

How is Ooredoo leveraging advanced technologies to offer cutting-edge services to consumers?

Within Qatar, the key shift has been our innovative roll-out of 5G technologies, backed by the development of the correct infrastructure and speed-testing to ensure near-perfect delivery every time.

This has increased the footprint of our national coverage and significantly strengthened customer loyalty.

We try to ensure that home and mobile experiences are equally high in quality and that both are simplified by the increased use of apps. Demand is helped by the fact that there is a lot of high-quality content out there – sports, games and streamed home entertainment – so we continually search out exceptional partners to work with in this domain.

In addition, we are not only a telecommunication company; we are a digital partner to our customers offering a full range of mobile, fixed, entertainment and financial services. Shifting over to app-based provision where possible, Ooredoo aims to make the most of combining superfast fibre broadband with excellent wireless connectivity to ensure the public can enjoy content provided by the likes of Disney+ and beIN Sports on demand, or simplify life with our award-winning Ooredoo Money. Our Nojoom programme rewards customer loyalty, while the full range of support available for businesses is remarkable.

Where is Ooredoo now in its 5G journey?

Subject to successfully navigating the pandemic, we hope to further expand Ooredoo’s 5G footprint within the region.

On the consumer side, this should be strengthened by working carefully with customers to think about the potential of our proposition. It is straightforward to measure this inside the organisation through a series of targets for upselling, but what will make a real difference is planting the seeds of ideas among our customer base about how they can get the most out of the service.

This involves a willingness to learn, too – popular digital activities from texting friends to selfies began as customer initiatives, so we would aim to support them in these aspirations. Fortunately, we are also able to partner with a great range of handset manufacturers who bring 5G-enabled devices into play, each with a dedicated fanbase.

To help customers take advantage of our expanded 5G coverage, we ensured that COVID-secure deliveries of such handsets could take place with the launch of each new device.

Over the coming two to three years, we aim to see more 5G use cases applied within the consumer and business space. We definitely want 2021 to be the year that sees an end to all the rumours about the safety of 5G.

As a woman in the ICT industry, what challenges did you face throughout your career to reach a leadership position?

Women in ICT have faced numerous career challenges over the years; stereotypically, it was a ‘man’s world’ for a long time. This applied with both employment and also some of our ideas about who constitutes particular segments of the market – think of the way a ‘gamer’ is seen as a boy or a man, despite the substantial number of girls and women who enjoy gaming as well, and are great at it.

I would say my challenges stemmed, essentially, from these stereotypes; I wouldn’t say I encountered anyone who deliberately set out to make me fail, but many in the industry were surprised to see me even try. Already established leaders in the industry didn’t always expect to see a woman join, or see her progress to leadership roles. However, with hard work and dedication, I have shown that no one should expect less of me than of my male counterparts; I have continued working to progress my career, leaning heavily on my unwavering determination to succeed.

One source of pressure for these stereotypes to change now comes from higher education, where women in much of the Middle East are making spectacular progress. It could be said that certain disciplines relevant to the ICT sector – computing, engineering and so on – have historically been male-dominated, so it stands to reason that fewer women have entered the sector up until recent years. Now, we’re seeing a much more even balance between the genders in such disciplines, which has led to better representation of women in ICT.

Over time, as more and more women have joined the ICT industry, the industry itself has developed a more open, welcoming reputation; a reputation for now being an industry in which women can thrive. The more women are visible in the industry – and visibly succeeding – the more other women will feel enabled and empowered to join, and this is very much becoming the norm.

Personally, my strategy for dealing with the historic obstacles to women in ICT – which can be as basic as having a ‘face that doesn’t fit’ during all-male meetings – has been to do my best and work hard, build the necessary trust and make myself indispensable to whichever team I am involved in. I consider myself an equal on all levels, so I approach every encounter with that attitude and I don’t allow for any consideration otherwise.

For my part, I am committed to encouraging girls and women to consider the ICT industry for their careers. I strive to create and support initiatives – hackathons, coding workshops, collaborations with schools and colleges - that promote the industry as one in which females can succeed, and that facilitate their entry into jobs that will offer them solid career progression and development.

What do you aspire to achieve in 2021?

Rapid enhancements in technology and innovation in 2021 will continue to change our lives and offer huge opportunities, to the company and consumers alike. We hope to continue to ride this wave, especially as the immediate effects of the pandemic begin to recede into history. Although the majority of the world felt a negative impact from COVID-19, the necessary restrictions imposed meant we were forced to adopt a new way of living, working and learning, and I am excited to see how we can leverage the lessons learned from these experiences to further develop this ‘new normal’.

Our customers glimpsed a way of doing things differently as the pandemic forced an acceleration of our progress towards complete digitalisation, and we anticipate this will play a big role in the way they enjoy our services in the future. I’m excited to see how customers will move into the ‘new normal’; I’m expecting many of them to continue the transition to digitalisation, and to become ever more demanding for us to keep pace.

We are only just beginning to tap into the potential of 5G, with the speed of progress picking up relative to network expansion and the number of 5G-enabled devices available on the market, and I expect this combination of network and devices to continue to drive progress this year. We intend to continue our fast-paced roll-out of the 5G network and hope to test its capabilities yet further at as many major events – pandemic permitting – as possible.

On a personal level, I hope to be an inspiration to young women to take up careers in the ICT sector, and to make a lasting contribution to economic recovery from the global pandemic. From these foundations, I would hope to keep building a strong digital platform for achieving the goals of Qatar National Vision 2030. With Qatar increasingly coming to the world’s attention in the months and years ahead, it's important to align these digital ambitions to a real sense of purpose and build on the lessons of the previous year, and I fully intend for Ooredoo to be at the heart of these ambitions in the coming months.