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Exclusive Interviews

Ian Dench, CEO of Ooredoo Oman

Inside Telecom Staff

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Ian Dench, CEO of Ooredoo Oman

Telecom companies have played an integral role in keeping individuals/societies connected and informed amid COVID-19.

What were the technical and operational challenges faced by Ooredoo during the pandemic, and what solutions have provided people with reliable connectivity the most?

Our priority from the outset was threefold. First and foremost, the safety of our staff and within just a matter of days we moved everyone to working from home. Secondly, keeping our customers connected, ensuring network availability and fast internet connectivity for consumers and businesses – particularly as they too transitioned to working from home, being responsive to their urgent and immediate requests. Thirdly, supporting the government and authorities of Oman in whatever way needed or required, in particular the Health and Education Ministries, the Emergency Services and other institutions.

Almost overnight, people moved the majority of their work, studies, and lives to their homes, and there has been a much bigger reliance on the internet to keep people connected. Our ongoing heavy investment in our network meant that it was well equipped to cater to the increased data demands that this situation brought. 

Our digital transformation efforts have also paid off. We had to shut all of our stores overnight and our contact centre staff had to work from home, which naturally produced some challenges. However, we were able to keep all services fully operational with access to our contact centre, our app, eShop, and other digital channels.

What operational/organizational changes were implemented by Ooredoo during the pandemic? Are there any emerging trends in telecom that you may want to adopt as a service and/or utilize for corporate purposes? (I.e. remote employment, telehealth, AI systems etc.,)

Through our award-winning app, customers are able to pay bills, top up, subscribe to plans, seek help and much more and over the course of the lockdown, we added numerous new digital services, such as being able to update ID through the app, ordering home internet and even raising and tracking trouble tickets/complaints. Communication through social media also increased significantly, in particular, WhatsApp, where our customers can place orders and raise queries. We’ve also added multiple languages to WhatsApp to make it easier for more of our customers to contact us.

Our eShop has evolved significantly over this recent period, providing (in Arabic and English) multiple services with home delivery anywhere in the Sultanate.

We also upgraded services available to business customers through our dedicated B2B digital channels and business customers could stay in contact with their account managers.

Even though we have now re-opened our stores, we continue to provide convenient digital services, as well as over-the-counter services as before. And our contact centre is fully operational with the vast majority of people still working from home.

We launched a number of offers, discounts and freebies for our customers during the lockdown period, including free calls, extra data, faster speeds, and plenty of free add-ons. We are also providing free access to educational websites.

For businesses, we increased our bandwidth speeds to ensure employees could work from home effectively and efficiently. We also offered unlimited calls, data packages, extra speeds and much more, all of which can be accessed through the enhanced B2B app or through account managers, to make working from home easier.

Oman’s digital transformation agenda was already well on-track, but the pandemic accelerated it. The transformation that has been made under such unprecedented circumstances has been remarkable, and thanks to our resilience and adaptability, we have for the most part been able to continue our operations and serve our customers, under vastly different and unusual times.

More than ever, people have realised how much more convenient it is to do things digitally and how much value it adds to their lives and it’s unlikely they’ll want to go back. We want to continue the positive developments that have been made throughout the pandemic and use them as building blocks for a post-COVID world. That means not only strengthening our commitment to enriching our customers’ digital lives, but contributing to the economic and social prosperity of Oman, as together we strive to overcome the impacts of the pandemic and face the future with confidence.

You have recently been selected by EduFair as the official telecom partner for the virtual exhibition for Higher Education Institutes. What is the importance of participating in such endeavors?

We’re pleased to have this opportunity once again to show practical support for education as well as showcasing the many Ooredoo Business products and services that can support education and related businesses.

Supporting education is a key focus for us as part of our corporate social responsibility strategy and we believe it’s our collective responsibility to nurture the next generation of leaders. This has been supported by various initiatives, long-term educational projects and training programs, through boosting educational opportunities and incubating digital entrepreneurship

Since the pandemic, as mentioned above, we have enabled free access to educational websites and online communication applications as part of a collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), to support students’ educational needs in light of schools closing down.

Working together with government organisations and private institutions, we are helping to nurture and develop many of tomorrow’s leaders and entrepreneurs and thus support Oman’s economy.

Furthermore, it is increasingly clear that online education will become a permanent component of all education in the years ahead and high-speed internet connectivity at home, and at educational institutions, is absolutely vital. With our significant investments in Fibre, 4G and 5G technologies, we are geared towards supporting this development in Oman.

You have been named by Forbes as one of the top-ranking companies in the region. What strategic steps have you adopted to get ahead of the competition?

This latest accolade reflects the Group’s phenomenal growth and vision. Our teams around the world are working to enable and enrich the digital lives of the communities we serve by providing much needed relief measures, innovative solutions, awesome digital services and great connectivity.

The Ooredoo Group is on a mission to empower customers across our global footprint to access and enjoy the best of the Internet in a way that is personal and unique to them. We continue to invest in our networks to ensure seamless connectivity that caters to our customers’ growing digital needs. The Group is working as a real digital enabler across its markets, with the aspiration of helping people simplify their lives and enjoy exciting and rewarding digital experiences.

How will your services benefit from 5G deployment/implementation? You have already opened pre-registration for 5G at home, what are the advantages of 5G technology?

The rollout of 5G marks a significant milestone in the Sultanate’s digital transformation journey, offering significantly higher network speeds with almost zero delay, which means faster downloads and uploads, better gaming experiences and super slick HDTV streaming. We have been gearing up for 5G for some time, upgrading the backbone connectivity to cater to the faster speeds and increased data traffic. Our 5G Home Internet service is now available in 88 locations in Muscat, Al Batinah, Al Dakhliyah, Al Wusta, Al Sharkiyah and Dhofar.  This new service offers consumers speeds of up to 100 Mbps.

However, the big promise of 5G comes with the low latency and the range of industrial applications it can benefit. It’s not just about self-drive cars and flying taxis, but how everyday things can be automated. For example, in the oil and gas industry, they may utilise drones to monitor wells and pipelines, as well as the automation of thousands of sensors.

There are also IoT solutions, such as smart metering, which we have already launched on existing technology in collaboration with the National Electricity & Energy Centre for the Public Authority for Water (Diam). In fact, this was the first-of-its-kind smart metering in Oman, which eliminates the challenges faced by utility providers when collecting meter readings, particularly in isolated residential locations.

The possibilities created by the technology will impact almost every aspect of our lives, all businesses government, healthcare, education, industry and the country is ready for it. We are excited to be offering our customers this transformative technology and taking their internet usage, and lives, to a whole new level.

You have entered into an agreement with the Ministry of Education to develop a new online education platform for Oman, what are some of the plans of this new agreement?

We’re very pleased to have signed this agreement with the Ministry of Education, as part of our CSR activities for Oman, and to be playing a role in Oman’s digital transformation while helping students reach their full potential in their educational journey.

This initiative is intended to address the challenges presented by COVID-19, ensuring that education is not disrupted moving forward. Linked to Oman’s Educational Portal, the platform will create virtual classrooms for students to learn from a distance across the country as well as enable discussion forums for teachers and administrators to share best practices and monitor growth and development in line with international indexes.

The platform will include the latest educational features and tools such as an e-library. User friendly and efficient, it will also ensure students interact easily with teachers, enjoy access to learning material, have their questions and queries answered, all the while keeping track of their progress. What’s even more, the e-learning platform will be accessible on mobiles and tablets through a dedicated App. It will also enable for additional material to be uploaded to aid distant learning as well as generate reports pertaining to the services available. Making it interactive, teachers will be able to host seminars, present projects and exchange ideas and perspectives that are beneficial to students.

How do ICT solutions address energy sustainability in mega cities? How can you implement ICT technology for security to ensure customers are given the protection and privacy they need?

ICT-based mega cities are able to leverage technology to enrich the lives of their populations, improve public services, transport, traffic flows, power, water supply, waste management, security and more.  They are well known not just for the quality of life of their inhabitants but also for their ability to attract businesses and investment.

Through the Digital Oman Strategy, Oman is working on harnessing the full potential of ICT and building on the sector as part of its bid to widen its economic prospects. Moreover, the implementation of new technologies as part of the Information Technology Authority’s vision of creating a Knowledge Based Society is facilitating the successful integration of new services in our homes, places of work, and throughout the education system. These steps are creating the foundations for future smart city initiatives in the Sultanate.  

When it comes to security, protecting employees and client data should be a top priority and making sure systems are resilient, secure and redundant will be just as important — if not more important — than new features.

How is sustainability driving growth in the telecoms industry? Do you a have a Green strategy in place?

As major consumers of energy to power our network, we are continually looking to new green technologies to reduce cost and improve sustainability. We deploy Solar Energy within our network where it makes economical and commercial sense. We also use special solutions to reduce the fuel consumption for generators in a number of sites, resulting in less pollution.

Our HSE department makes sure we are as environmentally friendly as is possible on a corporate level. They are responsible for our company recycling programme, overseeing our responsible energy consumption, ensuring office efficiency by saving paper and many more activities. They also work to ensure our employees enjoy a healthy work environment.

We do emphasise the importance of corporate and personal environmental responsibility and stewardship in all our activities. We focus on empowering our staff to play an active role in the preservation and conservation of Oman’s environment and to give a helping hand to communities. This includes holding volunteer-based events like our regular beach clean-up events and we have more activities in the pipeline.

As an organization, how committed are you to social responsibility? Tell us about your more recent CSR initiatives?

Corporate Social Responsibility has remained a mainstay of Ooredoo’s promise to enrich people’s lives. The company’s CSR programme, known as Ooredoo Goodwill, has grown to encompass all areas of the community, social development, education and empowerment.

Enabling budding entrepreneurs to prosper from the internet, our Springboard program (for women) and Spring Forward program (for both men and women), champion digital entrepreneurship and help young Omani’s to get their digital businesses off the ground, whether social media, online or app-based. Last year, we awarded teams from our Springboard and Spring Forward programs a start-up budget for the first time, as we placed a greater emphasis on education and supporting Oman’s economy by helping to develop and equip Oman’s future leaders and small business owners. 

Our annual Goodwill Journey, which celebrates its 16th anniversary this year, focuses on fostering women’s empowerment, education and self-sufficiency, as well as promoting the sustainable development of communities across the country. Some of last year’s activities included popening two new women’s incubators, taking the total to 13.

In partnership with the Ministry of Social Development, our Goodwill volunteers launched a carpentry room, computer lab and sensory room at The Al-Wafa Rehabilitation Centre for Disabled Children in Al Amerat. Three more sensory rooms in Al Khaboura, Nizwa and Ibra were also set up during the year, as well as the design and implementation of two ‘Digital Entertainment Rooms’ for the Paediatric Cancer and Paediatric Surgery rooms at the Royal Hospital.

Making good on our promise to promote education, we continued to update and enhance our popular Digital Tutorial App. For the first time in the Sultanate, Ooredoo is also preparing activity files for students in kindergarten and pre-school, which include video clips to teach the alphabet in Arabic and English, mathematics and science, in addition to exercises and educational activities from the curricula of a number of Arab and Gulf countries.

Along the same lines, the team donated digital devices to the Abu Hamza Al Shari School in Sohar, the Al Noor Association for the Blind in Ad Dhahirah and to less fortunate families in Masirah. We also visited hospitals in Sohar, building an outdoor playground, and in Duqm where they distributed medical beds to enhance the standard of care. Equipment was also donated to the Oman Association for the Disabled in Al Buraimi and the Omani Bahjah Orphan Society in Salalah, with whom a two-year contract was signed to support the ‘Saturday Market’ in Dhofar. The weekly event provides the families of the association with a unique platform to bolster their income and showcase their talents.

When COVID-19 hit, our priorities changed and we were able to mobilise quickly to redirect our efforts and support to initiatives that helped the nationwide fight to stop the virus’ spread and mitigate its wider impacts. Since March, we have donated various medical testing supplies and equipment to a number of hospitals across Oman, have provided free data to returning students contained in quarantine and also whitelisted educational websites.

For us at Ooredoo, our core values – caring, connecting, challenging – are not simply a statement, they are something we live by, and translate into action every day, every month, every year.

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Exclusive Interviews

Mazen A. Dohaji, Vice President (iMETA) at LogRhythm

Inside Telecom Staff

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LogRhytm

As technological advancements have skyrocketed, and the switch to digital is on the rise, cybersecurity will play a vital role in the transformation ahead. 

As governments all over the world invest in smart city initiatives, the role of cybersecurity has been elevated to protect the fabric of society from cybercriminals looking to wreak havoc across the board. 

One of the main players on the front line of cybersecurity is LogRhythm, a U.S.-based cybersecurity firm. The company recently launched tools for adopting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Essential Cybersecurity Controls (ECC). Its predefined reports and use cases enable organisations to accelerate compliance with the KSA’s ECC and support Saudi Vision 2030.

Inside Telecom sat down with LogRhythm’s Vice President of iMETA, Mazen A. Dohaji, to find out more about the company’s activities and the current cybersecurity landscape.

Could you walk us through the cybersecurity services that LogRhythm has and will provide to KSA? 

The Essential Cybersecurity Controls (ECC) were launched in 2018 by the National Cybersecurity Authority (NCA) in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) as part of the Saudi Vision 2030 strategic framework. Since then, we’ve been developing reporting capabilities and compliance use cases that make it easy and efficient to comply with the KSA ECC. 

Our NextGen SIEM platform enables organizations to meet many ECC guidelines by collecting, managing, and analysing log data. With out-of-the box automation, our system meets the minimum cybersecurity requirements for information and technology assets operating within the KSA. 

We understand that organizations may be at different points of compliance maturity, so the KSA-ECC module gives organizations the flexibility to realize value at any point along that maturity scale. As their business grows, our advanced functionalities such as NetMon, TrueIdentity SysMon, threat research content, and case management will enhance prebuilt content to better support organizations’ compliance efforts.

Will the services offered be provided to both the Kingdom’s private and public sectors?

Our reporting capabilities and compliance use cases are designed to serve both the private and public sector. At the same time, we have a key focus on the public sector and that is a large opportunity for LogRhythm in KSA. 

The objective of the ECC is to establish best practice in cybersecurity at a national level, covering critical infrastructure, high priority sectors and government services. All government-run agencies and departments within the Kingdom must comply with the ECC, and any privately run organizations looking to do business with public sector organizations must also comply. 

What matters is that any organisation can easily demonstrate their compliance with the ECC when they’re audited. 

Can you give us examples of how your services will shield KSA from cyberattacks?

An organization in the KSA can proactively monitor their IT environment and recognize any suspicious or problematic activity. This includes right down to the endpoint. 

Our SIEM platform has helped to improve many organizations by allowing them to provide widely diverse log sources, correlate them, and then easily create rules around alerting them about cyberattacks. By integrating all products into a single system for analysts, we make it easier and more efficient for organizations to block attacks and save time in the process.

It is about enabling organizations to be proactive with cyberattacks and giving them visibility and control over their IT environment.   

As 5G rollout begins, how will LogRhythm capitalize on the next generation network to enhance services, products and capabilities?

I think the evolution of 5G will create new opportunities and challenges for enterprises. We’ll see growing deployments of IoT that are underpinned with 5G and that means new and diverse attack surfaces. The combination of 5G and IoT will make security a priority for a growing number of organizations and they will need to rethink their approach. 

At its core, it’s about creating a secure foundation for innovation and maximizing the potential of 5G and IoT. That’s a journey that many organizations are on already, but 5G will accelerate investments in IT security and the development of IT security strategies.     

With smart cities on the horizon, such as the Kingdom’s plans to build Neom Smart City, what can governments do to ensure the safety of these advanced Internet-powered cities?

The KSA has been proactive in its approach to cybersecurity. It has recognized that cybersecurity is critical to the growth and development of its digital economy and that extends to smart cities. 

For smart cities around the world to not only survive but thrive, governments need to make sure they are providing reliable, wireless connectivity throughout. However, it needs to be done in a safe and secure way. 

Governments need to maximize their security intelligence by gaining visibility into all parts of their network, whilst simplifying the Security Operation Center (SOC) experience so their analysts can respond to threats faster. With new technology, governments can save resources, increase the value of their investments, choose scalable and flexible deployment options and create road maps to advance their cybersecurity journeys.  

Can you please breakdown automation in cybersecurity and its benefits?

Automated incident response tools handle sensitive customer data, preventing attackers from gaining access to potentially damaging information, and causing reputational detriment and distrust. 

Inefficient communication and lack of resources increase the risk of damaging threats slipping through the cracks. With automated incident response tools you can guarantee that all prescribed steps are taken, and in the same order, ensuring nothing is missed. However, if your organization maintains an informal SOC and has limited resources, you may be facing delays in responding to incidents or threats could be going unnoticed. Using incident response tools can save time which can be directed to more pressing workflows and alerts can be handled by fewer people.

With constant change in the industry and an increasing landscape of cyberthreats, security teams have a lot on their plate. It takes longer to separate real threats from the false alarms and the amount of time spent on routine data gathering increases Mean Time to Detection (MTTD) and Mean Time to Respond (MTTR). Using automation incident responses can limit the exposure of false alarms, enabling analysts to pay more attention to critical threats and increase the aggregation of data, putting the relevant details in front of the right people.

Not having an efficient plan in place can easily cause panic when things go wrong. Automating IR not only allows for the decision-making process to be expedited in the event of an attack, but also ensures that the right decision-makers are clearly outlined which minimizes overlap. With more visibility and elimination of blind spots, you will not only improve your security operations efficiencies, your team can operate with much more confidence when securing the organization’s data.

Does LogRhythm have any plans to expand its services beyond Saudi Arabia, and into the GCC as a whole?

We serve organizations across India, the Middle East, Turkey and Africa, which we call iMETA. This is the region that I cover. While these markets are quite diverse, they share similar cybersecurity challenges. Across the Middle East, we’re active with both channel partners in markets like the UAE and Egypt while serving direct customers that span iMETA. This is a dynamic and growing region that understands the value of robust cybersecurity and with local markets that have big ambitions for their digital economies. 

What sets LogRhythm apart from its competitors?

We are a world leader in NextGen SIEM. We empower organizations across six continents to successfully reduce risk by rapidly detecting, responding to and neutralizing damaging cyberthreats. 

Our platform combines user and entity behavior analytics (UEBA), network traffic and behavior analytics (NTBA) and security automation and orchestration (SAO) in a single end-to-end solution. We are also the only provider to earn the Gartner Peer Insights’ Customer Choice for SIEM designation four years in a row.

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CEOs

Kevin Taylor MBE – Indigo Telecom Group Chairman

Inside Telecom Staff

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Kevin Taylor MBE - Indigo Telecom Group Chairman

This year has been a rollercoaster ride for industries far and wide, the most notable being the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on economies, governments, and companies alike.

For many, financial numbers and results dipped, projects were cancelled, and investments stopped dead in their tracks as the world’s population took refuge in their homes.

While most of the world were hitting the breaks, the telecom industry went into overdrive, as they took to the frontlines to maintain networks and connectivity streams, enabling the world to remain connected.

It wasn’t an easy feat, but telcos were able to steer the ship in the right direction by realigning their capex investment, focusing on immediate network expansion and managing their frontline engineering capability.

Inside Telecom sat down with the Chairman of Indigo Telecom Group, Kevin Taylor MBE, to find out more about the inner workings of the business and how Indigo remains steadfast despite the challenges ahead.

Indigo has been providing network and infrastructure to clients since 2009, currently operating in over 90 countries. Tell us more about your global expansion plan? 

Obviously, we have a strong presence within the UK and throughout the EU; our acquisition of a incredible design company called 4site, last December, has given us a number of positives such as strengthening our design capabilities across the mobile and network spaces, and that has given us two things:

  • It gave us a huge boost within Ireland by winning the national broadband to roll out fibre across the rural communities.
  • It gave us the capability to have a stronger fibre and wireless design rollout within the UK, which so far, has proven to be very successful.

The 4site acquisition gave us the ability to focus on an end to end design, build and support capability across mobile/5G, optical/fixed and broadband networks and data centres. This new three by three model allows us to offer end to end solutions across all the hottest and most current technologies in our industry.

So, our ability to meet our Customer demands are moving in the right direction…as an example, customers might ask for the following…5G design and build? YES, Broadband build? YES, Mobile Data centres/IOT? YES, Optical and Fixed Line Support? YES, our three by three model covers all the basis in the industry which means we are very busy.

In addition, we will be looking to strengthen our presence across Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Austria. The next expansion on our list in Europe will be Spain, Italy, and Denmark.

Away from Europe, although we have a presence in Hong Kong and Singapore, however expansion has been delayed due to travel limitations, which has been difficult amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

In parallel, we plan on opening in the United States sometime early next year and expanding with our Customer demand. It is exciting times but as a company we are passionate about moving at pace despite Covid-19.

How do you plan on accelerating business growth?

I’m a big believer that momentum in a business is essential for success, our customer demand is up 6X, our portfolio is expanding, our strategy is working, and our customers are supporting us.  It has allowed us to build on the positives we’ve garnered, hire new people and continue as a business making a difference.

The reasons why people like to buy from Indigo Telecom Group is widely due to our genuine desire to make a real success of what we’re doing for our customers, by exceeding customer service and delivery expectations.

Operationally, we focus our efforts toward offering a strong customer experience, by putting a high level of priority to improve their value streams within their very own businesses.

Guaranteeing the service model is of great importance to us, and that’s been reflected in our work, as our service levels have been 99.99 to 100 percent efficient for a long time now, even with the challenges presented to us since the pandemic began.

Other things that we’re looking to improve are expanding our three-by-three services model, reinvigorating our data centers to extend their capabilities to become more proactive, bringing in some digitization to allow more automation in the business, and creating an end-to-end service catalogue across all of our portfolio to make sure we are ticking all the right boxes.

Thus, our primary aim is to ensure we have excellent tightening operational principles within the business, increasing customer engagement, measuring customer response, strengthening our partner management, and lastly, making acquisitions where appropriate to accelerate our business.

I’m a person that believes in bottom-up strategies, rather than top-down strategies. Companies should involve the talent of their employees across the business to help define the strategy. This in our case has enabled them to feel part of the change within the company.

The 2019 acquisition of 4site in Ireland allowed Indigo to roll out new design capabilities across the UK and Europe. What gains have you made from the acquisition?

Our acquisition of 4site, in real and measured terms, has helped us add the wireless and fibre design aspect to our build and support capabilities, while enhancing our go-to market strategy as well as expanding the scope of services to our customers.

In parallel, our pipeline has gone up 6x from an acquisition perspective, while securing higher win rates than where we started, so in less than a year, the transformation to our business has been fantastic.

Indigo’s services portfolio is constantly evolving to meet the needs of your growing customer base. What areas of operations interest you most right now?

Here we must look at our most compelling areas, while looking at our engineering talent and capabilities in order for us to hit the sweet spot for us and our customers.

Although funds in the industry that are coming in are both on the telco and investment side, each investment needs implementation talent and it’s our job to provide this as well as deliver our capabilities on time while moving incredibly fast in many key aspects such as broadband, fixed, optical networks and next generation data centres.

There’s also the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) and everything that comes along with it, which will rapidly develop with the rollout of 5G; in addition, there’s also edge computing, tower companies expansion and technology manufacturers launching better and faster infrastructure.

How does Indigo set itself apart from other telecom engineering companies?

Well you must consider that every major company in this business has a history within it, we have an engineering one, and I think our effective sales channel and the quality of engineering  is what sets us apart from the competition.

And to maintain that edge, we really need to understand the need to do everything right and effectively first time and every time; this is our company culture, and we are also keen to offer the younger generation an opportunity they deserve within this industry, which is a massive thing for me personally, and now we’ve done just that by filling some of these roles in the 100 positions we have hired over the last five months.

We provide full training support; we have just launched an apprenticeship scheme and on-the-job training is provided across our organisation.

With all of this bundled together, it allows us to offer quality, opportunity, and experience to these engineers, noting that some of them have become redundant or have struggled elsewhere during the COVID-19 era.

What projects are you working on and how is the prospect of 5G shaping the future of your operations?

5G is going to be very interesting going forward, especially from both B2B and B2C perspectives. Thus, the most integral part in moving forward is connecting with the right partners.

For a few years we have been supporting our customers by designing and upgrading our customers’ infrastructure to be ready for 5G.

We have also put a large focus on enhancing our build capabilities, which is a huge positive for us to be able to offer support to our customers. We’re aiming toward staying at the leading edge of technology and enhancing and growing our knowledge.

Will 5G rollout be prioritized toward businesses and enterprises first? Or will the rollout happen for both businesses and consumers equally?

I think there’s going to be a massive upside on the B2B transaction applications front, and segmentation of those applications. However, consumers will always want and seek the latest technology especially the younger demographic; we’re already seeing this via the increasing demand of 5G-powered smartphones.

Businesses will be looking at the benefits of 5G for enterprise, so I think the demand and priorities are going to be met equally. Especially since it’s going to support remote connectivity, like IoT, AI, VR, AR etc.

How can telecoms manage the mobile data explosion?

The most important thing is keeping our knowledge as up to date as possible and doing this by maintaining our engineering focus and depth. As I previously mentioned, we just hired 100 engineers, and pretty soon we’re going to be looking for another 100, and then another 100, training them all effectively to have the right skills necessary for what’s to come will be key to our success.

How have you coped with the changing demands brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic? What measures have you put in place to ensure the efficient running of network infrastructure at this time?

The whole world went into shock the first few months. I think when we went into lockdown, nobody really understood what Covid-19 meant, and projects were cancelled left, right, and center.

However, the support of critical industry must keep going regardless of all the problems associated with Covid-19, especially with the massive importance of connectivity, for hospitals, businesses and, consumers alike.

We must keep the communications world operational.

At the beginning – apart from the critical projects – things slowed down for months or so, and then suddenly investments started again; telecommunications companies needed to scale up their networks due to people’s heavy usage of video conferencing technology, gaming,  multimedia and many other applications.

Usage has been going through the roof… we have all played a part in keeping everyone connected.  The increased usage of data around the globe has meant the telecoms industry has been rushing to invest in increasing the size of their networks.

In parallel, since the beginning of the summer, the pandemic has accelerated new technologies, which is why there are big amounts of investments going into our industry, and from that, we as a company, have grown tremendously, and hopefully we will continue to build on that growth.

On the ground, our engineers haven’t stopped, they have been on the frontlines with the right PPE and support, and I think they’ve done an absolutely brilliant and amazing job at keeping all of our customers happy. They together with all other key workers across many industries are my heroes.

Initially, in the back office, our employees have worked from home, and now we’ve implemented a rotation schedule for them that’s been in place for the past 4 to 5 months, which has kept morale strong.

One point of interest, our millennial staff are desperate to get back to the office, wanting to work from the office and work within a space that puts them in the right mindset to reach their full potential; thus, with the new rotation model, they’re happy to be back.

Is your business strategy keeping pace with the market? What challenges are you facing now?

First and foremost is keeping the momentum in the business, being aware of that and finding the right strategy to keep moving forward. In addition, one of our main challenges is hiring the right talent, continuing putting our customers first.

All while having fun within this strange new reality.

You have over 25 years of experience in telecoms. What excites and perturbs you about the industry today?

Every spring and autumn, there’s a new fashion in the world of telecoms and technology, and what excites me the most is keeping up with that fashion. An example of this can be seen when the first contactless solution in the transportation industry first surfaced in Hong Kong in 1997. I was a part of that – it was new and fashionable.

Whatever the next generation of fashion may be, I want to be part of it, and I think the most current one is 5G.

There are more changes that are happening today in technology than I’ve witnessed in my entire career, and I started back when we had shared mainframes, but to me, it’s all about what’s coming next.

Secondly, I’m very big on diversity; during my tenure in Asia-Middle East-Africa, I was the first in placing woman CEOs to lead businesses both in China and Japan. The selection was done because they were the best candidates at the time of interview by a country mile, but it culturally turned heads. I enjoyed that.

I also want to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity within this industry. For example, when I was Chairman of the British Chamber in Hong Kong, I worked with six big companies – among them banks, technology companies and utility companies – where we brought together youngsters who were on vocational training, they had fantastic ability but lacked the personal financial circumstances to go to university.

We rotated a number of individuals around each of the six companies to give them work experience while enacting a “if you like them, you hire them” policy, it was a tremendous success. People who would have never had the chance to work for companies due to a lack of qualifications, were offered the opportunity because of their capabilities.

It’s the human element as well as the need to give future generations every opportunity, that really excites me the most. I believe we all have a moral obligation in life, this keeps me energized every day.

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CEOs

Alexandru Cebotari, founder and CEO of AVO

Karim Hussami

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Interview with AVO app CEO Alexandru Cebotari
People depend heavily on roaming services when traveling from one country to another. Tell us about how you started the app in 2014?

I was working for a company as an out-staff telecom engineer and working for international projects in Romania, Saudi Arabia, Cote d’Ivoire, Mozambique and others. During those trips, I used to buy local SIM cards for cheap internet connection, but immediately faced a problem related to receiving incoming calls on my home mobile number, thus having to use two phones. Even so, all calls were expensive because of roaming.

At this point came the idea to build a mobile app which will keep my regular mobile number alive while I’m using a local data SIM. Holding that idea, I went to the Startup Weekend event, and won second place. Afterwards, we participated at Yandex Startup Camp in Moscow launching the first app version. Then we participated in Startupbootcamp in Copenhagen, and things took off.

Now, our service is available for subscribers in 20+ countries, and we continue to expand and to offer new services. Recently we launched the AVO SIMFREE app, which provides data roaming at low prices, avoiding buying local SIM or carrying 3/4G Wi-Fi routers.

AVO app doesn’t only get you cheap outgoing calls but ones that are free of charge, how?

To be clear, the AVO app provides free incoming calls from regular numbers and free calls from AVO to AVO users. All outgoing calls to regular numbers are charged.

“Your number will be available for calls even if you put a different SIM in your phone.” How does the app manage to keep one number after replacing it with another?

It’s pretty simple, before replacing the regular SIM from the phone, the customer sets up call forwarding to our local gateway, and when an incoming call comes through, we deliver it to the AVO app over a VoIP connection. That way and after exchanging home SIM card with a local one for data, all incoming calls are diverted to the app. It’s not mandatory to use local SIM; it will work perfectly over any Wi-Fi connection. 

For each category – Base, Tourist, Business and Expat – there is a different offer with a different price and duration for each country, can you explain the benefits of each roaming package?

We designed our packages based on the fragmentation of our users. The main factors behind splitting the categories were the time of the trip and the average call consumption made by different categories. For example, the package Base is used by short-term travelers with low call consumption; meanwhile, the Business package is used by frequent business travelers for which staying in touch over regular calls are very important. 

How is privacy protected when the data is shared and exchanged between users?

We don’t have too much data to be shared between users. But for a few existing scenarios, we are using best privacy practices and GDPR recommendations.  

Should the users’ contacts have AVO as well, to be able to connect with them?

No, this is the beauty of the app. An AVO user could call and be called by anyone. He can receive calls even from a landline and make outgoing calls to any international landline or mobile number. You don’t have to invite anyone to the app to be able to have a call. The most appreciated feature is incoming calls from any phone or phone network.

How long will it take for messages to be included in your service?

At this point, we don’t see the customer needs to add a messaging feature in the app. There are so many on the market and creating one more is not adding value for our users and us.

Can you tell us about the feedback regarding the app so far?

As with any app, we have different types of feedback, positive and negative. And we appreciate constructive criticism which helps us better understand the needs of our customers and make improvements to our app. One of the main issues we see now is the call forwarding setup required for the incoming calls. But we are already working on this.

What is the difference between the actual roaming costs worldwide and the rates you offer?

For calls, the difference is huge. For a US subscriber, the cost of the call for roaming is about $0.20-0.25 per minute depending on destination and home mobile carriers. With AVO app, incoming calls are free and outgoing calls are for $0.08 per minute. And the same goes to all other markets where our service is available.

What challenges have you faced with the expansion of your app?

The main challenge is marketing. Telecom is a highly competitive market, and we have to be creative in how to engage and retain our customers. The second biggest challenge is the partnership with telecoms. We would love to have more integrated services and to become a bridge between regular and VoIP call technologies. Still, very often, mobile carriers refuse to collaborate because they are concerned we will jeopardize their roaming business.  

Tell us about your business plans and future goals? 

As I told you at the very beginning, we just launched the AVO SIMFREE app as a costless solution for mobile data while traveling. We will work on a consolidated solution which will provide customers with the full roaming service including data, voice calls and SMS. Our next goal is to reach one million customers and to expand in Asia and Africa.

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