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Etisalat has been deploying tireless efforts to meet the growth in capacity demand, according to Ali Amiri, Group Chief Carrier & Wholesale Officer, Etisalat. In an exclusive interview with Telecom Review, Amiri highlighted the main trends shaping the telecoms industry and explained Etisalat's strategy as to each one of them. In addition, he tackled the operator's plans to meet the growing demand for data and the factors allowing to successfully enable global connectivity.

From your point of view, which are the main trends currently shaping our industry?
5G is seen as a game changer with rich potential, an evolution that would elevate services, performance and enablement. The 5G service availability provides high data rates with ultra-low latency, which will far exceed the current 4G and the high capacity in the 5G will provide unlimited access to all kinds of applications and services.

Etisalat was the first telecom operator to successfully launch the first 5G ultra-mobile broadband experience in the region and Expo 2020 Dubai became the first 5G major commercial customer in MEASA. Such an implementation is a declaration of a new era of digital connectivity, and an acknowledgement of 5G's rich anticipated potential. It is in line with UAE's digital aspiration/vision, market trends and Etisalat's long-term strategy.

High bandwidth requirement applications can be enabled over the 5G network like virtual-reality use cases enabling consumers to enjoy real-time up to 8K live streaming.

Most of the major telcos in the region and globally are also getting ready to launch their 5G network and services laying the foundation for the implementation of futuristic technologies in the enterprise and consumer sector. For the enterprise sector, Etisalat is mainly focusing on IoT opportunities for 5G and will work closely with various verticals, including smart health, security, financial and transportation. While for the consumer sector, Etisalat will be reviewing the evolution of a number of opportunity areas, including: AR/VR gaming, 4K streaming, smart homes, high quality content downloading, etc.

On the other hand, operators will have to gear up in supporting multiple IoT applications, each with their specifications in terms of network quality, latency and technology. There will be billions of devices connected resulting in new reality which will affect our day-to-day lives, but also the network, services and technologies necessary to support it.

Many of these applications will require connectivity levels well above 10G or 100G offering scalable bandwidth. But more importantly, all these applications will also require low latency to enable a high quality of experience. Obviously, an underlying trend is the digitalization of customer experience through the adoption of self-care portals which includes real time service provisioning. Such a move is being enabled by the virtualization of network functions leveraging the cloud instead of the legacy distributed networks.

In addition, operators are experiencing co-existence with mega-OTTs who are serving billions of people around the world irrelevant of borders. This is creating a new reality that telcos and OTTs should be working hand-in-hand for the benefit of customers.

The exponential growth in data and content demand, which increasingly resides on local clouds, translates to the need for hyper-connected pipes locally between the data centers and internationally to push the common content to the global audience.

Consequently, we are seeing a significant shift in that content providers are becoming more and more critical to the connectivity ecosystem than ever before. They have billions to invest in network capacity, infrastructure and operators are actively engaging to help meet their requirements and build the digital future for the industry.

Content providers are driving the vast majority of data traffic around the globe. The objective is to ensure that the connectivity ecosystem can serve customers cost effectively and with high quality of experience. This implies influencing where their content is located and how the data centers hosting it are inter-connected with the rest of the world. For content providers competing to offer the best quality of experience to all customers, they have to make sure that their users have continuous connectivity.

Some major OTT players have entered the submarine cable market over the last few years making them key stakeholders in the global connectivity ecosystem. The main driver behind this move is to secure the growing capacity needs at the lowest possible cost by striking the right partnerships with carriers, with industry stakeholders or building their own cable systems.

How do you plan to handle big data growth?
Our Carrier & Wholesale team works closely with the industry to understand the change in capacity requirements and look for opportunities across our operations in 16 countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa to the rest of the world.

Etisalat's recent investment in cables namely AAE-1 and BBG are part of this overall strategy. We also continue to collaborate with major global content companies giving them an opportunity to enter the UAE market to be closer to a large number of customers in the region. The SmartHub today hosts major CDN players and is in partnership with cloud and content providers by hosting their network nodes at the hub.

Recently, Starzplay joined the SmartHub to better serve their customers in the Middle East through our SmartHub Internet Exchange (SH-IX) or IP-Transit Service (EMIX). On a regional level, we have also added GCC-based Infonas in the hub to enable them to connect to their carrier partners hosted on the same platform. The advantage that this platform offers is the ability to access all services and connect with other industry players.

Etisalat also participates in regular upgrades of various consortium cables in order to meet the growth in capacity demand and to avoid any potential black out from cable outages.

We are in discussion with other telecom operators about building new connectivity to support our global operations. This plan will also ensure that we can support other carriers in meeting their increasing capacity demand as quickly as possible.

Our investment in infrastructure continues to ensure that we are able to meet the traffic growth generated by the rapid adoption of big data applications. Therefore, we are engaged in discussions with a number of cable systems to meet this growing demand and capacity.

What is driving the requirement for more international cable capacity?
Global international traffic is dominated by data, with voice only accounting for approximately 0.05% of all traffic. Video, gaming and real time entertainment are generating huge internet traffic, which is driving demand for international capacity to new levels. In the near future, we expect IoT to create additional traffic and further contribute to the growth of capacity demand.

While bandwidth used for the public internet has accounted for majority of international bandwidth usage for well over a decade, a significant shift is now underway. Internet traffic continues to grow with capacity on private networks (led by the major content providers) growing more quickly and expected to exceed internet traffic in the near future. As a result, the feasibility of new submarine cables depends on the data center locations of the major content providers.
As capacity requirements increase for the customer, there is even higher need for diversity, specifically to address simultaneous cable outages in order not to impact the quality of service.

What are the key success factors in enabling global connectivity?
In the consumer business, voice and data services are increasingly becoming part of bundles with unlimited voice, messaging and pre-defined amounts of data. This explosion of data usage is providing revenue opportunities for operators.

Today it is relevant to provide price competitiveness for connectivity by owning delivery networks. Content providers are collaborating with telcos to capitalize on this opportunity, the robust infrastructure and global network.

This cost efficiency is essential as it plays an important role in making future sustainable investments in cable systems.

On the customer front, the time of service delivery and the availability of bandwidth is critical. As we move into the future, bandwidth on demand services will change the dynamics of using data services and the pricing models. On top of that near real time service delivery time will become the norm.

Etisalat has maintained a diverse and effective business model, offering added value to our customers to meet and exceed their expectations by launching a variety of innovative offers and services in the UAE. Customer experience has seen revolutionary changes using innovative digital platforms to interact and enhance the overall engagement while continually creating new innovative products and offerings to meet their changing needs and requirements.

We have expanded our network of smart stores in the UAE, a new achievement that supports our continued efforts to provide a unique digital experience with high levels of efficiency and flexibility. Etisalat's smart stores aim to deliver advanced technologies and high levels of quality and speed in customer service. We aim to improve the overall customer experience by providing data packages and competitive prices to give them the best value. These products and services aim to meet the dynamic changing requirements of our customers in the best possible manner.

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