Alfa: Speeding all the way upwards

Bringing happiness to people through technology innovation is the biggest achievement of Lebanese mobile operator Alfa, managed by Orascom Telecom, according to Marwan Hayek, CEO and Chairman. In an exclusive interview with Telecom Review, Marwan opens up about the organization's accomplishments, plans and challenges, showing us how the operator is aspiring speedy transformation in the mobile telecommunications sector.

You have been in your role as CEO since 2010. What would you say has been the biggest accomplishment so far?
In my opinion, bringing happiness to the people is our biggest accomplishment since we started managing the Alfa network in 2010. We all know how the situation was in the telecom sector back then, especially on the internet side. It was very discouraging and a factor of sadness at that time. The only thing users in Lebanon could do was just send messages and do some GPRS or Edge sessions, and that was it. Since then, we have embarked on transforming the entire infrastructure of Alfa by being first to introduce 3G in 2011, then we moved to 4G in 2013, and now we're deploying the 4.5G LTE-A nationwide network which is based on carrier aggregation technology. This has led us, on the speed side, to move from 10 Kbps in 2010 to 250 Megabit/sec, which says it all.

Moreover, studies have shown that the user's heart rate goes up 38% if the content that you're trying to download on your mobile is delayed, and the stress level increases from 19 to 34% if you experience re-buffering during a video streaming session. So, definitely, our network performance and experience adds to the stress level that our people are facing today and has given us an incentive to work on having a good internet speed as it is an essential factor of happiness. This is the biggest achievement that we have made so far in the history of the telecom sector in Lebanon; we are able to add happiness and put smiles on the faces of people thanks to the infrastructure development that we have done throughout the years.

Revamping the entire infrastructure has helped us achieve this target. Adding to that is the stability that we ensured in the organization. Historically, Alfa was going through difficult times by changing management, reaching 2010 where stability reached the top. This is one of the essentials in the organization as it has signalled and triggered a mid to long-term transformation plan involving all Alfa's team members. This has contributed to increasing loyalty, commitment and enthusiasm towards our brand which was somehow missing before. It's a great achievement on a personal level, leading the organization towards growth and stability.

The Alfa team has grown by 500 members since 2010. In addition to the new job opportunities we have enabled in Alfa thanks to all the projects done, we have also contributed to the creation of around 3000 new job opportunities in the Lebanese ICT sector. This has helped reduce the brain drain in Lebanon, which is one of the most pressing issues Lebanon has been facing for a long time. Job creation and consequently reduction of brain drain is an essential mission and an ongoing commitment for us as one of the largest corporations in Lebanon.

In March 2016, Alfa signed 4.5G LTE-Advanced network deployment contracts with Ericsson and Nokiawith a plan to cover the entire Lebanese territory. Where are you now in this process?
Indeed, we officially launched in March 2016 our 4.5 LTE-A network implementation with our partners Ericsson and Nokia as part of the 2020 Digital Telecom Vision. We were the first in Lebanon to launch deployment, after introducing the first 4.5G LTE-A demo live site in Q3 2015.

As a status update on this project, deployment is ongoing and we have started airing sites (350 sites) distributed between the capital Beirut and different regions across Lebanon such as Akkar, Aley, Baabda, Baalbeck, Batroun, Bint Jbeil, Chouf, Donieh, Hasbaya, Byblos, Keserwan, Koura, Marjeyoun, Metn, Nabatiye, Rachaya, Tyre, Tripoli, Zgharta, and Zahle. We are following a speedy rollout process as part of the commitment and plan to cover 99.7% of Lebanon with 1300 4.5G LTE-A sites by end of 2016. So, this will lead us to offer speeds up to 200Mbps all over Lebanon, and reaching up to 250Mbps under certain conditions. 4.5G LTE-A will enable us not only to improve the data speeds but also user experience and serve vertical markets relying on our own advantages and network capabilities. It's worth mentioning that in terms of data traffic, once we inaugurate 4.5G LTE-A in any of these sites, the consumption is increasing by 30%, proving that each time we increase capacity the consumption is increasing. Once all of our 4.5G LTE-A sites are live and the service is fully operational on subscribers' devices, we forecast an increase in data consumption by five to six times from 15,000TB per year on our network currently, to more than 80,000TB in 2020; 80% of this consumption will be on the 4.5G LTE-A network we are deploying today.

According to the 2020 plan, 5G will be introduced by mid-2018. What does Alfa require to get its network ready for this deployment?What challenges do you expect to face?
The MoU that we have signed with Ericsson and Nokia is about having our network ready to host the first 5G station by mid-2018. As a result of the MoU, we are the 24th global operator to have signed this agreement with Ericsson.

The MoU is about working closely with our partner suppliers to see what is needed in terms of infrastructure upgrade to make the network ready, and what are the applications that we can bring into the country and our network; otherwise, 4G is more than enough in terms of speed and data throughput. So, if there are no applications or use cases, you don't need to upgrade the network to 5G. When we say 5G, it's about speeds of 500Mpbs and can reach up to 1Gbps. Definitely, we need to work closely with equipment manufacturers to have applications and use cases that can add value to the country and to our subscribers.

5G is the driver for IoT and it will be offered to Alfa subscribers in the shape of wide variety of applications such as smart cities apps (structural health, smart parking, smart lighting, smart roads, traffic congestion management…), smart environment (fire detection, air pollution, snow level monitoring...), home automation, eHealth, industrial control, smart metering, retail, security and emergencies; hence, expansion of partnerships with vertical industries.

As for the challenges, they are always there. The main challenge that we are facing is first on the spectrum and the interference because of some illegal use of frequencies in the country. And secondly, the backhauling, meaning by that fiber that is not available everywhere at this moment.

Can you tell us more about the network operations center (NoC) and do you expect it to provide better quality of services to subscribers and meet their demands?
We opened the new operations center two years ago, and since then, we have seen a reduction in the outages by 30%. This kind of fully equipped operations center gave our dedicated team of engineers the possibility to be proactive when it comes to detecting faults on the network and addressing them quickly. The investment that we have done has helped us really to have a global view of our network, to be in control of what's happening and in anticipating any issues that might happen. Our next step is moving towards SOC, a service operation center, to control the quality of services as well. Thanks to partnerships with leading technology partners such as Mobinets (a Beirut-based innovation hub), we were able to complement our OSS ecosystem/landscape with an innovative solution enabling auto discovery and automated inventory of our assets giving us an accurate view of the network configuration across multiple domains and technologies. Today, we can simply measure our KPIs such as Opex/Capex reduction, service quality, etc., leading to a better customer experience.

When it comes to customer service, what are you offering as innovative and digitized services? Is there a special care for your enterprise customers?
Generally speaking, customers nowadays became more demanding and immediate responses are required from our side. With digitized services, we became more and more exposed, and alert to answer and interact with our customers instantly. In that context, we were among the first corporations in the region to launch customer service on social media. We are offering multiple digital channels to our customers with a dedicated team assigned for all digital interactions 24/7. We have, as well, recently launched the live chat application on our website and on the Alfa app. We have set SLAs to guarantee an exceptional service to our customers, and this is accelerating our interaction with customers' queries. As part of it, we answer 90% of the customers' queries in less than 30 seconds on digital channels.

As for our enterprise customers, they have a priority on all aspects even when interacting with us. When they call our free helpline 111, they have a different queue system in addition to a dedicated account team from our side to follow up with them 24/7 and answer their needs and queries with regular visits to ensure service satisfaction.

What would you say is Alfa's biggest achievement from theAlfa 4-Life CSR program?
Alfa 4-Life in itself is the biggest achievement. This program has started in 2006 and grew, reaching the rewarding stage that we are in today. We are working with six NGOs where we are able and are constantly launching targeted initiatives to support their sustainability and missions. In addition, as a major economic player, we gave back more than $2 million in direct investment for capacity building of marginalized categories and people and children with special needs.In that context, in the past 10 years, we helped around 1500 children and people with special needs or social problems develop their skills and armed them with tools, skills and knowledge to become productive, sustain themselves and contribute to the economy. Furthermore, we have constantly launched SMS campaigns and donations with our subscribers to help the NGOs.

In fact, our work in the field of technology lacks emotions because we deal with inanimate objects. However, our work with the NGOs as part of Alfa 4-Life is a source of warmth, inner peace, and a permanent source of joy thanks to the great impact we are able to make in lives of people with special needs, as it gives them hope for a brighter future. This fact of helping the children and seeing the smiles on their faces is a major achievement and reward to us and part of our giving back to society.

In addition, referring to the Lebanese law, it is required to recruit at least 3% of any organization's working staff from the population with special needs. At Alfa, we have proudly trespassed that reaching 3.3% and we are one of the few corporations in Lebanon committed to this number and to its constant growth.

We are pleased and glad that through all our initiatives in the CSR field. We have succeeded in creating a virtuous circle of change by inciting other major actors to follow our steps and by widening the advocacy to the causes that we support through our stakeholders and partners.

Alfa ""aspires to lead the change in telecommunications industry"". How are you working towards achieving this?
What we have done in terms of the projects launched for the past years is an example of the success we have reached so far. The tremendous transformation from 2G to 3G to 4.5G LTE-A is one way of seeing it and this has led to a big increase in the number of data subscribers - which has increased from almost 0% in 2010 to more than 75% of our total 2 million subscribers today. This is another proof of our success, especially when it comes to digitization. Smartphone penetration, as well, has reached 86%. We are probably among the highest on a global level (if not the highest).

Our target is to maintain this leadership in technology innovation and to keep pace with customer demands for high speeds. This leadership has been further demonstrated by global reports. For example, our network was ranked 15th out of 123 Ericsson global networks last yea in terms of 2G network quality. This year, according to the latest report released by Ericsson, we ranked 15th out of 101 global Ericsson networks. In terms of quality of the 3G+ network, last year our network ranked 9th out of 62 operators and this year 8th out of 91 operators. In terms of speed, our network ranked 14th out of 62 operators in 2015 and this year 15th out of 91 operators. This advanced ranking shows how we are moving in the right direction, transitioning from an old fashioned operator to a digitized one.

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