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In an exclusive face-to-face interview, Hani ELKukhun, chief commercial officer of OSN, discussed with Telecom Review the company’s commercialization tactics and the motivation behind, the impact of the pandemic and 5G on the streaming demand and experience of consumers, and the importance of telecom partnerships in delivering premium entertainment content.

Armed with deep ICT expertise, ELKukhun is responsible for setting strategies, developing leadership frameworks, and implementing operational excellence that supports OSN’s transformation journey. Over a year in service, his commitment to driving business growth and his strategic prowess has been integral to OSN’s success.

As a veteran telecom professional who worked across the US, Canada, and the Middle East, what are the key approaches you follow in the planning, strategy development, and commercialization for both consumer and enterprise offerings?

The first thing we need to look at is what is driving the needs of these consumers and enterprises. Coming in with a lot of experience from North America and different countries of the Middle East, I have known that we’re in a fragmented market that has very unique and broad needs and behaviors.

From my personal perspective, it's not only about understanding them and living in these regions but also bringing what is best for them. From an OSN perspective, this is a company that has been in the MENA region for over 25 years and grew up with most individuals who are working with us today.

OSN’s true essence of being a premium provider is about being able to adapt to those people's needs. I believe that the same individual that was watching us when they were young is now probably streaming series with us on a daily basis. That's really the wealth and depth of bringing our commercialization strategy and our plan to the region.

It's all around the consumer — about their entertainment needs, behavior, and understanding what they want to watch and how. The people in the UAE are different from the people in Saudi. The people who live in the cities are different from the people who live in rural areas. Those differences bring together all the needs that we must address.

As we look at it, entertainment is no longer about watching a series on one TV, it's about watching it anytime or anywhere. And in the culture of this region that we're in, they want that premium entertainment anywhere. So what better partners to have other than telcos, especially in a fragmented environment where we have to deliver content in multiple ways.

In addition, being successful in this region consists of not only the leadership and management skills, but also working on bringing local talents and nurturing them. We're proud to be a local contributor in every country that we operate in and bring the best of the experiences to them. Whether we've entertained them or they work with us, our growth depended on each other, which is a very important part of how we work in this part of the world and bring global experiences.

Online content consumption has surged drastically due to the pandemic. Viewers are consuming more live and VOD content. How can 5G address this demand and accelerate digital and business transformation?

Streaming is not new; it was possible even on 3G. What's happening today, due to the pandemic, is that we are witnessing an increased adoption of streaming and a change in consumer behavior wanting to watch anywhere, any time. Thus, 5G and the digital transformation of our infrastructure across the Middle East and North Africa have become very important.

Consumer demands really have increased which has put pressure on us and infrastructure providers to offer premium quality experiences through content and technology.

5G is truly enabling the transformation of digital infrastructure across the home and enterprises as it is allowing us and consumers to keep up with the demand. With a lot more people watching anywhere at any time — in an Uber, at home, or in the office — 5G networks have the capacity to handle that traffic and deliver a quality experience.

The pandemic has indeed increased the viewership and took the demands much higher, with no signs of regression. Instead, people have gotten used to this habit and now, they just aim for more.

Can you share with us some insights about your subscribers? Which platform do they mainly use to watch and what could have influenced this consumer preference?

We are definitely one of the top entertainment providers in the MENA region. The consumers’ demand for our content has been enormous and over the last few months, we've seen a 200% increase in our numbers. This is really a testament to how well we understand our customers, being born and raised in this region, and being a significant part of the households and the personal experiences of our customers. We truly understand what and how they want to watch the premium content that we bring to them.

We are the entertainment of choice for many and we have the right partnerships to deliver that to them wherever they might be; and where is that exactly? There’s no single answer as it varies per country, and this challenging factor is also fundamental in delivering the best and relevant content to our subscribers. In Egypt, for example, we've seen a higher preference for people to watch on big screens (TVs), but if you look at Saudi Arabia and its younger population, we've seen an increase in watching on small screens (mobile phones or iPads).

From this, we can see a culture where the people like to mix between socializing and having the availability and flexibility to watch different kinds of entertainment. On the other hand, it’s true that a lot of people may like to watch on TVs, but inside the same house, you are likely to find a child watching on their iPad. Because of the breadth of our content offerings suitable for kids, adults, and families, we gained the experience and understand what people desire to watch and made it compatible across any form of platform.

From a technology standpoint, how does 5G mobile streaming help service providers scale to meet consumer demands and utilize cost-effective distribution options?

Seeing more demand from people watching content is also a part of some of the mobile providers’ main strategy around providing content and quality experience. Certainly, 5G gives the highway to be able to deliver that seeing that it offers more bandwidth to be able to stream high-quality content, allowing consumers to scale and give options. Evidently, in a household that might not be fiber-connected, 5G is able to bring the much-needed connectivity.

5G keeps up with the demands and accelerates the digital transformation and enablement of households, individuals, and businesses in different countries. The needs are quite big and that's where I think the Middle East has been at the forefront. Telecom operators in the region have been pioneers in bringing the best experience to their subscribers while partnering with us to provide the premium entertainment content they need.

From a commercial business perspective, how would 5G access translate to increased revenue and market share?

OSN and telcos go hand in hand as content becomes key to any 4G and 5G strategy. These partnerships become very important because as they try to monetize and commercialize 5G, we give them an opportunity to offer actual value to subscribers beyond connectivity.

We were instrumental and a part of all of the leading 5G launches in the region. In KSA, UAE, and Kuwait, OSN always was and still is a part of the commercial offerings that these telecom operators were giving with their 5G plans.

Our continuous presence is marked by two things: First, we have the leading content entertainment for the region and its subscribers, and second, we understand both the region and the telecom operators very well so our business models fit together, thus, delivering our content.

Telecom operators, with leading content that's applicable to their subscribers, can commercialize even more their offerings. Through this, they're able to create bundles and give quality OSN premium entertainment to their subscribers through 5G. In the long run, we aim to continue having a very strong partnership with telcos and commercially help them get the revenue and market share they desire as well as amplify our presence within their customers.

How can OSN’s portfolio of products across the MENA region continue to expand its presence in the coming years? Talking about partnerships, which telecom operators/vendors/enterprises are you closely working with?

The portfolio of products and services in the coming years is going to focus on us being a leading premium entertainment provider in the region. We have continued and will continue to evolve our content and digital platforms for the needs of this region.

Digital is at the core of everything we do. We'll continue to help digitally transform and enable the region, countries, operators, as well as homes and enterprises.

There’s no doubt that experience is part of the innovation. Most subscribers today want to find something to watch within 20 to 30 seconds. Our recommendation engines, ‘what to watch next,’ and ‘what is similar’ features help the consumer find their preferred entertainment. That's where we become relevant and stand out.

As for the partnerships, we have over 20 telecom partners in every country across the region, namely stc, du, Zain, Vodafone, and Ooredoo, among other operators who are already with us or currently onboarding. Forming a win-win situation, we have an amazing customer lifetime and churn effective management tools with our entertainment.

Telecom is not new to us. We've evolved our partnerships into streaming but in the traditional world, we've also been providing IPTV channels to a lot of the entertainment needs of our regional partners, especially to the likes of Etisalat, stc, Ooredoo, and du who already provide TV services.

Accordingly, we've been helping them for years, but we've evolved now into this new world of streaming that requires 5G for higher speed needs. We've had telecom partnerships for decades and I believe they will remain strong for the years to come. We are dedicated to bring value to their subscribers, making their offerings more attractive and relevant, and help their customers stick by increasing their lifetime value and reduce their churn.

You have mentioned that digital is at the heart of what you do. What is your outlook on the digital transformation within the region in the next 10 years?

Digital transformation never stops. In the region, the governments and telecom operators have been evolving at an enormously faster pace than other parts of the world. Take a look for example at how the region took on digital to fight COVID-19. They have enabled digital systems to create vaccine passports and travel at ease.

This region is going to continue to digitally transform all industries. Will it stop? Absolutely not because we have the will, the demand, and the capability with great governments, great telecom operators, and great entertainment providers like OSN that are devoted to this goal.

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