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The COVID-19 pandemic—perhaps more than any other event in human history— has demonstrated the critical role that telecommunications infrastructure plays in keeping businesses, governments, and societies connected and running.

‘Connected Impact’ is the key theme this year at Mobile World Congress that will highlight the relevance the telecom industry has proven in the past year in transforming societies and lives globally.

For Etisalat, it has been a year of learning, achievements, innovation and transformation in our network, services and solutions for all our customers - from the resilience our networks showcased to the global achievements as well as facilitating the ‘new normal’.

Staying connected in the new normal

With a vision to ‘Drive the digital future to empower societies’, Etisalat was able to deliver in the current macro-economic climate. The unprecedented economic headwinds caused by COVID-19 have certainly demanded agility across its operations with Etisalat demonstrating capabilities to quickly adapt to the present market conditions. Etisalat continued its focus on enhancing the core business and exploring new growth opportunities, while being well geared for the future with its digital capabilities and solutions. Etisalat’s dedication to continue to build a robust, agile and transformative business enabled it to meet customer demands for quality services during the lockdown, while generating shareholder value and returns.

Eng. Hatem Dowidar CEO, Etisalat Group explained: “In 2020 we have delivered robust financial performance with consolidated revenues reaching AED 51.7 billion while consolidated net profit after federal royalty amounted to AED 9.0 billion, an increase of 3.8% compared to the previous year. Despite the challenges, a strong execution, an agile and resilient business model led to EBITDA reaching AED 26.4 billion with a growth rate of 0.3 percent and a margin of 51.1%.

“During these challenging times, we advanced our efforts to digitally transform our business both internally within the company and externally to all our customers, this led to increasing our subscriber base by 3.6% reaching a total of 154 million subscribers. This growth is central to our belief that the network and infrastructure have played a key role in empowering millions of customers during the pandemic. In the new normal, telecoms and digital technologies have become the anchor of our lives - be it remote working or virtual classrooms, our networks ensured that the world did not come to a standstill.  Innovations in telecom and digital technologies have altered the fabric of life, becoming a necessity and a human right in a digitally connected world.”

2020 was a defining year for Etisalat with intensive transformation and agile delivery of services, ensuring a strong performance while making Etisalat well positioned for the future; an outstanding outcome considering the stagnant global economy and challenges caused by the pandemic across our footprint. We witnessed a step change in customers’ adoption of digital solutions and affirmed our technological leadership in this rapidly evolving ecosystem, ensuring value creation for our customers and shareholders.”

With the sheer determination of Etisalat teams, it continued to support the communities it serves and added value to the markets in which it operates.

Digital transformation accelerated in pandemic times

The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation globally with a shift in investment priorities and changes in online behaviour. Businesses and people globally today think differently about how they work and live their lives. The percentage of customer interactions that are digital has been accelerated by several years. Remote working infrastructure, new online services, technology skills and cyber security are now priorities for governments, corporates and SMEs. This is accelerating the digital transformation of society with telecom and 5G playing a major role. Research states that 85% of respondents said their businesses have somewhat or greatly accelerated the implementation of technologies that digitally enable employee interaction and collaboration.

“Today the digital revolution is in full force with businesses looking at every window of opportunity to transform their services and solutions. At Etisalat, our focus to realize the vision and  strategy of ‘Driving the digital future to empower societies’ supported customers during these unprecedented times by providing them with a plethora of new innovative services and emerging technologies backed with resilient connectivity to mitigate the exponential spikes in the network,” explained Dowidar.

Digital transformation is an imperative for today’s business leadership especially with COVID-19. Etisalat Group’s long-term projections have always set goals to transition from a traditional telecoms operator into an integrated ICT solutions provider. The pandemic pressed the fast forward button, however, accelerating a technology shift already taking place.

Therefore, the journey for Etisalat has been transformational, internally and externally. ‘Living Digital’ is the focus and way ahead. Within Etisalat, digital transformation was always on the agenda making the shift to operating an ‘only digital platform’ easier. Today as we all face an unfortunate crisis, Etisalat has showed resilience and remained committed towards the communities it serves, minimizing business impact on our operations, our customers and subscribers. This was done by speeding up on the implementation of all digital channels, delivering in the new environment and addressing challenges faced by consumers and businesses.

Despite the unprecedented market challenges facing the industry locally and globally, we ensured business continuity and readiness. Thanks to the UAE vision and Etisalat’s strategy, we are geared to support and serve the entire community making it possible for businesses to work remotely, millions of students to enjoy distance learning and all citizens have access to vital services. Our network joined one of the most robust and digitally equipped showcasing infrastructure preparedness and ability to adapt and implement during today’s extraordinary times.

With overall data traffic on the telco network surging exponentially, Etisalat’s resilient advanced network remained dependable and secure to proactively assess and manage anticipated increases in bandwidth demand. During the peak of the pandemic, there was an overall growth in video conferencing and VoIP on both fixed and mobile network of more than 250 percent. The traffic increased in streaming services and video by more than 50 percent while in social media and gaming, it grew more than 80 and 200 percent respectively.

We offered all the connectivity tools and services people needed to continue to communicate and conduct business, including the fastest network in the world and 5G connectivity. Our teams worked on making sure support was provided to all our customers, including government departments, large enterprises, SMBs and our subscribers across the country. Etisalat’s advanced network and its ability to adapt and implement plays an instrumental role during the pandemic. In this time of uncertainty, our primary goal is to keep our valuable customers, employees and society fully connected.

Exploiting the power of 5G

Organizations are today exploiting the power of 5G technology to enable new services and solutions. 5G is a game changer with recent analysis estimating that by 2025 there will be around 4.7 trillion dollars of revenue generated and associated in some way by 5G or advanced connectivity. Around 1.6 trillion will be directly due to connectivity, and the remaining 3.1 trillion will be hardware, software, services, platforms etc.

5G has the capability to enable new experiences and use cases that are critical for the new digital normal and were impossible prior to 5G, be it for consumers or businesses. It will enable remote everything in education, health, factories, ports, entertainment, and a lot more. It will bring large potential as the appetite for exploring new use cases is higher than ever.

The availability and access to the super-fast speeds on 5G fixed networks from homes is a huge achievement and a result of the deliberate steps taken to innovate and execute during these challenging times. This achievement came after the global breakthrough in the 5G journey of 3.1Gbps download throughput over the 5G network and the first end-to-end 5G standalone call in the country and the first in the world.

5G and disruptive technologies are at the forefront of transition bringing new opportunities to the industry and the country. UAE has also displayed a clear commitment towards embracing this change as it offers great economic potential by making processes faster, effective, providing insights and efficiencies while creating incredible new experiences. Etisalat’s 5G network will amplify the use of these futuristic services, target new opportunities, and implement 5G use cases across verticals.

From making the first live 5G video call from the world’s tallest and iconic tower ‘Burj Khalifa’ to becoming the first operator to enable an international airport and a metro station, transform a smart district to empowering an international racing track with 5G connectivity, every milestone was a result of the long term planning and investment in one of the most advanced networks in the region.

Dowidar highlighted the relevance of 5G to Etisalat. He said, “5G selective deployment will continue in 2021, unlocking new business opportunities for the Group. The linchpin of our strategy is the acceleration of digital transformation. We are currently leveraging our wide range of digital technologies and services and powering a great digital-first experience to encourage digital adoption by our customers. Our own digital transformation will enable us to execute our strategy and will facilitate a paradigm shift to a new operating model that nurtures innovation and agility.”

Etisalat leadership’s vision aims to power everything with 5G from driverless cars to doctors performing remote operations. With infrastructure building in UAE and in Saudi Arabia where Mobily made its first successful 5G voice call in 2020 while acquiring additional spectrum and increasing coverage to reach 50 cities.

In UAE, ultra-fast 5G network technology reached about 40% of the population in addition to the country being ranked as the world’s fastest mobile network in the world. Etisalat is already working on several big projects. Last year it tested 5G use cases with the Dubai Police, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, and DP World. The Expo was Etisalat’s first major commercial 5G customer, inking a deal in 2018 to deploy services at the mega-project. This gives Etisalat a golden opportunity to showcase its network speeds and 5G.

Building digital capabilities

Innovation is embedded in our operations and is an integral element in providing a digital experience to the consumer. Etisalat’s Robotic Centre of Excellence is aimed at delivering a wide variety of automated solutions to boost efficiency and improve productivity leading to greater customer satisfaction.

The centre currently has 141 robots which have saved over 171,000 manhours. The introduction of robotic process automation is part of Etisalat’s endeavour to drive the digital future and empower society in line with the UAE Vision 2021.

As we move further into the digital age, there is a growing need to turn towards emerging technologies to streamline operations and inject greater efficiency into our business processes. The opening of Etisalat’s Robotic Centre of Excellence addresses the evolving needs of our customers, with robotic process automation services improving overall efficiency, speed, and accuracy of our back-office teams, with the aim of further enhancing customer satisfaction.

Robotic process automation releases back-office agents from repetitive, mundane tasks to concentrate on high value activities that cannot be robotized. Software robots are supporting back-office agents to complete repetitive tasks 70 percent faster.

There is a serious effort internally in building an AI capability as well. Etisalat has partnered with Microsoft, Accenture and EBTIC to build a team to lead the AI stream for the company and the industry. The team currently consists of 20 young Emiratis working on internal use cases focused on increasing operational efficiencies mainly with planning infrastructure and optimizing the network. The long-term plan is to focus on building the capabilities of the next generation of Emirati youth and AI use cases for internal use and will continue to increase efficiency, boosting productivity and enhancing customer experience over the first 2 years. The team would continue to explore external use cases as well and from the second year would aim to build external use cases based on market requirement. The future plan is to expand the team from 20 to 50 to focus on AI use cases that includes the entire development journey from ideation to market release.

Artificial Intelligence is a technology that is impacting every industry and every human being, Etisalat has invested in technologies that will propel the use bringing efficiency and engagement across the company. Customer care is one of the areas where technologies like speech, video analytics and robotics are used in back office automation to enhance the customer journey. Currently, there are several use cases identified and underway to bring this digital experience to reality.

Blockchain technologies are another area in which we see immense potential that helps in cutting down intermediaries, costs, increase speed and reach offering transparency and traceability of business processes. By 2030, blockchain is expected to generate a business value of more than $3 trillion by 2030 with at least 20% of global economic infrastructure running on blockchain-based systems.

At Etisalat, we are already actively working with industry players such as the financial sector which stands to benefit the most from the technology. Our partnership for ‘UAE Trade Connect’ has eight UAE banks on the blockchain platform helping them to focus on addressing risks of double financing and invoice fraud before turning to other areas of trade finance.

‘Shahada’ is another revolutionary effort on blockchain for the education sector that will securely issue credentials, avoiding forgery of paper-based certificates and creating an education passport.

Etisalat is also extending its efforts on blockchain in its loyalty programmes enhancing the experience for consumers to convert their loyalty or reward currencies. This technology is also coming in play to customize communication and messaging for subscribers centralizing customer information and verifying it as well.

Enabling entrepreneurs for the future

Etisalat Digital continued to foster open innovation with ‘Future Now’ - an innovation programme that will accelerate the adoption of the latest technologies by collaborating with start-ups, IoT developers, government entities, enterprises and end-users to drive digital transformation.  

Government incubator ‘Dubai Future Accelerator’ (DFA)-  a nine-week programme established three years ago - is also one of the initiatives under Etisalat Digital’s open innovation program ‘FutureNow’. This programme is structured to facilitate the collaboration between government entities and corporate partners from Dubai with international startups and scaleups.

Under DFA, the global startup in-residence programme ‘Cohort 7’ paired seven international startups and scaleups from six countries out of a pool of 143 applicants with three priority areas (challenges) of strategic relevance; using AR to survey sites, digitizing physical retail spaces and automating user acceptance testing for quicker release of solutions to the market.

As a member of Fintech Hive, the acceleration programme of financial centre DIFC, Etisalat collaborated with banks and insurance companies to identify innovative fintech solutions that can become part of Etisalat Digital portfolio. During this acceleration program, Etisalat Digital mentored and collaborated with more than 20 scaleups.

Future Now launched its own challenges with a participation of 10 scale-ups focusing on the enhancement of the customer journey of B2B and SMB. There is also a dedicated area ‘Open Innovation Center’ created by Etisalat in Dubai and Abu Dhabi which will be a window to the future to witness and experience all this innovation and how Etisalat Digital is driving digital transformation journeys.

With communication and connectivity gaining more significance and demand more than ever during the pandemic, telcos play a critical role in closing this gap of digital readiness by becoming the engines of resilience and innovation. Moving ahead, network modernization and digital transformation play a key role in bringing this change to society.

Digital capabilities should not be limited to customer experience but also extending automation and AI capabilities internally to strengthen all business functions.  Moving from digital first to digital throughout by driving AI and automation, revitalize digital customer experience  with increasing use of AI in customer interactions and evolve capabilities to support new value propositions.

We are already working on transforming all the elements integral in our ecosystem, the society, workforce, customers and for our shareholders. Today, Etisalat is enabling society to digitally connect, work and learn from home and use digital services. Internally, we are building a workforce of highly skilled and motivated digital talents who work together efficiently and seamlessly. Our main focus will continue to provide customers with reliable connectivity, innovative products and experience while maintaining strong financial returns and identifying new pockets of growth.

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