The Supreme Court has held that the English courts do have jurisdiction to determine the FRAND terms of a global license to standard essential patents (SEPs).
Tell us more about Standard Essential Patents. What does this ruling mean for SEP holders?
The Supreme Court of England and Wales and lower Courts before, have done their best to issue a multifaceted and rich judgment. But there may be a couple of issues with this judgment. For me, this judgment once more emphasizes the need to come to grips with the novel market dynamics presented by international economic integration. The borderless world is a business reality, but the law has yet to catch up with it.
The standards, which this ruling addresses, are core to the telecom industry. 3G, 4G/LTE but also WiFi (which this judgment does not address) have paved the way for real time interaction across the globe. Where the further evolution of such standards will take us, remains yet to be seen. For sure, 5G will be instrumental for next generation technologies such as the Internet of Things.
Patents that read on standards, also called standard essential patents, are subject to the FRAND commitment. This is because they can be prone to anticompetitive behavior. FRAND stands for ‘fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory.’ In the case at hand, the IPR policy of ETSI, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute played an important role. This policy seeks to set out how patents that read on ETSI standards are to be treated.
In this case, the Court adequately recognized the commercial tensions that prevail in this sector. As such, the Court argued that FRAND is a balancing mechanism. On the one hand side adequate access to standards need to be assured, on the other hand side patented inventions should also be incentivized. Royalty stacking was also recognized as a key aspect of FRAND. Royalty stacking can be described as the risk of a cumulative royalty payment a downstream innovator may be faced with. This is explained by the fact that there are many different patent owners who claim their stake on a standard.
I tend to think that the ruling will attract litigation into the U.K. This will be good news for the local litigation industry, but may have adverse effects on the larger economy. In the difficult times we currently face, the UK needs to assure it does its best for its consumers, its start-ups and scale ups, SMEs and local industry. The UK also cannot neglect its international trade position.
What are the repercussions for the licensing of intellectual property in the telecoms sector?
This sector has experienced a lot of litigation over standard essential patents. The press has labelled these disputes as ‘patent wars.’ For both the licensor and the licensee, the commercial stakes are significant. After all, these standards formed the baseline of a novel way of doing business around the world. It comes hence as no surprise that Court awarded damages have been significant.
How will this jurisdiction affect consumers?
Consumers in the UK may be faced with less choice. This is because technology companies may be carefully considering whether to expose their global licensing requirements to the scrutiny of the UK.
What would have been the implications if the decision went the other way?
The decision rightly points to a host of unresolved issues. It points out how highly complex today’s international business relations are. Had the British Courts decided that they can only issue a national licensing rate, existing market practice of pursuing legal disputes in a couple of key jurisdictions would have continued.
How will the decision impact implementors?
Downstream innovators need to be able to adequately access standards. Patents should not be an obstacle. The decision shifts the burden of proof and this is very expensive. Also, the decision sanctions a global FRAND licensing rate with an injunction in the U.K. Downstream innovators may carefully weigh risks and benefits against each other.
How will the ruling help turn the UK into a global hub for patent litigation?
That the UK is in a position to issue global FRAND rates, is an important value proposition for a patentee. It appears that this will now not be necessary as the UK is in a position to issue global FRAND rates. If and to what extent other countries will accept this remains to be seen.
Do you think technology companies will be prompted to reconsider their market position in the U.K?
This may be a possibility. In TQ Delta vs Zyxel, the defendant declared it would rather accept an injunction and exit the UK market than accept a global FRAND rate set by the English Court. (See: TQ Delta vs Zyxel. Case No: HP-2017-000045. http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2019/562.html, Skeleton Argument on behalf of Zyxel. Claim Numbers: HP-2017-000045 and HP-2019-000009, p. 11 as well as hearing on April 17 2019, p. 97-99 and hearing on March 18, p. 51- 52)
How will this affect negotiations over Brexit?
There are 25 European countries that are trying to set up a Common Court for cross border patent enforcement, called the UPC (Unified Patent Court). The UK left UPC in July 2020. If and to what extent the UK will need to find its own governance structures once it has rejected the acquis communautaire remains to be seen. I foresee here a potential for conflict. I await with interest the further evolution on this topic.
Do you see more FRAND litigation on the horizon?
I do not expect this sector to come to peace any time soon. The commercial stakes are important and the sector is traditionally very litigious. Unless the underlying business SEPs protect diminishes significantly, I see no end in sight to the disputes over standard essential patents.
Ahmed Bader, Insyab Co-Founder and Managing Director
Insyab was launched in Dubai, UAE in 2016 and is currently operating out of the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST) Research Park, KSA with a presence in Houston, Texas, USA.
The company’s mission is to offer connectivity and mobility management solutions to unleash the power of collaboration in robotic systems. The company places strong emphasis on continued Research & Development and customer satisfaction.
Tell us about the journey of your company, from its inception to the present day?
It started as a casual conversation back in early 2013. I was telling my friend and PhD co-supervisor, Prof. Slim Alouini of an idea that I had. There was a spark, and we saw an opportunity ahead. The technology was not ripe enough though. So we spent the next 2-3 years working on maturing the technology and experimenting with it using some initial funding we received from KAUST, the university which embraced our vision. It was not until late 2015 when we had something to showcase to a potential customer who happened to fly all the way from Houston, Texas to attend a field demo. Soon after, we incorporated the company which we named “Insyab” and had our first paying customer in early 2016.
This first customer happened to hail from the oil & gas upstream industry. So naturally, we spent the years to follow deepening our knowledge and widening our know-how in this domain.
Today, we offer a range of connectivity, mobility management, and analytics solutions to the O&G industry. We have also worked hard over the past 18 months to diversify into other verticals especially given the repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis. Capitalizing on many of the tools we used for O&G, we are now venturing into the precision agriculture and last-mile transportation domains.
Why is automation such an important tool across industries?
Automation is seen as a tool to enhance efficiency and productivity across various industries. Repetitive low-skilled tasks are better off and safer to be done by robotic agents. This is particularly true when automating field operations.
For example, in a typical geo-exploration operation, tens of thousands of sensors are deployed in what are often considered to be harsh environments (e.g. arid deserts, frozen snowy terrains, or foothills). In fact, these sensors need to be repeatedly picked up and laid down somewhere else over the span of months or even years. Indeed, unmanned aerial/ground vehicles, i.e. drones, are well-positioned to handle such tasks. In other words, drones are used to automate the sensor deployment and retrieval operation.
Another good example of automation and an early adopter of robotics is the logistics industry. I remember back in 2012, it was just thrilling to see Amazon acquiring Kiva Systems for nearly USD 800M. Kiva was among the first companies to develop a warehouse servicing robotics solution.
How can multiple agents (e.g. drones, crawlers, or rovers) cooperate and get the job done faster?
That is a very good question. Obviously, having multiple robotic agents taking a stab at a certain job will slash the time needed to finish it, right? In fact, the message we often preach here is that 1+1=3! It can be demonstrated that when robots work in collaboration, they’re often able to do better. For instance, going back to the geo-exploration example, we’ve shown that 4 drones can deploy sensors in substantially less than a quarter of the time taken by a single drone. This can be done by virtue of load balancing and adaptive mission control in the face of unpredictable events in the field.
Do wireless solutions facilitate automation?
If we want to have drones and robots collaborate we need to allow them to talk to each other, right? So wireless communications kicks in as a valuable enabling tool. It may even be the case sometimes that over-the-counter wireless technology is not very well suited. Using the example of geo-exploration again, cellular services are not ubiquitously available in areas where systems are to be deployed. Furthermore, the amount of bandwidth and the ultra-low level latency sought after in these applications make it appealing to develop a proprietary solution. This is what we have exactly done for this market.
In fact, we have come across another good example where the development of custom-made wireless technology was needed. One of the biggest online retailers in the UK, Ocado, wanted to build a fully automated warehouse fulfillment center. This involved the use of automated conveyor belts and robotic agents. They quickly realized the need for highly robust high-bandwidth, low-latency wireless connectivity, and ended up co-developing a customized solution.
How has automation helped in context to the current pandemic?
While it is still early to offer a quantified response to that, it is pretty obvious how fast factories and warehouses and even farmlands are ramping up the use of robotics and automations in their operations. This is seen as a tool to minimize the impact of disruptions caused by lock-downs or mobility restrictions.
Automation is therefore on a fast-track trajectory to be more deeply embraced and this is clearly fueled by COVID-related concerns. Most importantly, the increased use of robotics and automation on the factory or warehouse floor reduces the likelihood of workers coming into close proximity to each other and hence minimizes hopefully the chances of contagion.
Is Insyab’s solution of real-time wireless connectivity between all components of multi-agent systems more efficient than using cellular infrastructure?
Well, it always depends on the use case. For many industrial automation applications, the cellular infrastructure can take care of the need. However, as mentioned earlier, there are specific use cases in the security, public safety, and energy sectors where the cellular service is not up to speed. This is less likely to be the case as 5G cellular services start to be rolled out. We’re actually quite excited at the prospects of 5G. The recently ratified 3GPP Release 16 and the prospective Release 17 incorporate provisions for robotization and automation. Some of the technology we’ve developed at Insyab looks quite relevant there, and we trust that we’ll start to have some traction with 5G technology developers.
Other than Insyab’s AirFabric™ wireless solution, what other products and solutions have Insyab developed?
Yes indeed, AirFabric™ is the core wireless connectivity solution that enables robotic agents to communicate with each other seamlessly. But wireless in itself is just an enabler. The key is to plan the collective motion paths of robots such that the underlying mission is executed as efficiently and as timely as possible. So last year, we released an early version of a path planning software module. Given our successful track record in the geo-exploration market, the first trial is expected to take place 4Q2020.
At a different end of the spectrum, and in effort to step up the value proposition, we also started complementing our offering with data analytics and computer vision components. This is primarily provisioned through partnerships with other startups that we work closely with.
How has the current pandemic affected your business? Have these challenges inspired new ideas to cope with the changes?
As you may expect, it had some painful effects on the flow of the business. That was especially true given the meltdown in the oil market back in April 2020. We immediately started to see budget cuts and PO cancellations. Anyway, I think we’ve been able to weather the storm but unfortunately at the expense of reducing our investment in R&D for the time being. We’re also virtualizing our workspace and business routines as much as possible with the hope of picking up pace again when the dust settles.
What has been your most successful mission supported by AirFabric™?
Indeed, the area where we had greatest success is the O&G upstream sector. We’ve also had some good interactions within the security market, where the requirement entailed offering wide-area 24/7 surveillance of strategic infrastructure such as pipelines and critical industrial facilities.
Talk us through the teams’ developmental process when creating these solutions?
Our team members are undoubtedly our best assets. My personal philosophy is to strive to make our team players feel that they actually “own” the project. We’re a small team, so we still enjoy the privilege of discussing our projects collectively and in-depth. When people feel empowered they automatically develop a sense of ownership. You don’t have to worry then about tasks being completed on time and with quality.
We know that many countries ban drones or other forms of aircraft. Do you have any legal licenses in place for this process of development?
It is not us, but rather our customers who would be managing the unmanned assets. So we don’t really fly or steer unmanned vehicles ourselves. Nonetheless, the regulatory framework does have an effect on the overall business potential.
Nonetheless, if you’re asking about the testing we do before shipping a product, then I must say that we’ve been fortunate enough to have an office at the KAUST Research Park, where flying drones for research and development purposes is rather a convenient task.
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.
Kian Gould, CEO and Founder of AOE
Kian Gould is the CEO and Founder of AOE and is responsible for strategy, vision and growth of the company since 1999. AOE develops digital business, E-Commerce and marketplace solutions based on open source technologies. Gould is a regular speaker at many global conferences, and a well-known expert in global E-Commerce, telecommunication, airport digitalization and agile management.
You established a long-standing partnership with Deutsche Telekom. What are the key elements for a superior telecom customer experience?
We started working with Deutsche Telekom twelve years ago, when they had just launched their secondary brand congstar into the market. The vision of congstar was to become an attractive brand to a younger generation of mobile users that wanted the best network but more flexibility than the flagship carrier was providing; putting the power in the hand of the user. The motto was “what you want is what you get”. This required a complete rethinking of telco architecture for this new mobile virtual network operator (MVNO). Allowing customers to change their contracts anytime within the billing cycle, adding products, removing products, etc., meant the need for a never-before-seen flexibility in architecture from campaign through commerce to provisioning and billing. It was an amazing opportunity for AOE to build a new generation telecom E-Commerce framework from scratch. Over the years, more and more units within Deutsche Telekom wanted to rebuild and modernize different parts of their infrastructure and so our projects spanned from innovation projects for T-Systems-customers in the automotive sector, to building the new headless frontend framework for the main flagship E-Commerce platform to assisting with Deutsche Telekom’s biggest digital hub in charge of FTTH (fibre to the home).
What we have learned throughout the years is that there is major frustration from customers if a telco shows that they are not flexible and lock you into static and long-term contracts. Indeed, there is nothing more frustrating than having to find the right person within a giant organization to fix your problems. Many of the projects we have been working on have had a major impact on improving processes, customer satisfaction and flexibility and have enabled e.g. congstar to win best mobile carrier in Germany for nine years in a row. Our highly adaptable architecture solutions that we have co-developed with Deutsche Telekom and congstar over the years have led to superior customer and service experiences. One great example worth mentioning here is that congstar is one of the few telcos that enable customers to cancel their contract with one click. As a customer, it feels great knowing that your provider wants to make it easy for you and not lock you in by cumbersome processes – waiting for hours on customer hotlines. All these initiatives have also meant a major reduction in call centre- and support costs and ticket escalations.
What do you consider to be the most pressing technology issues in telecom customer service and management?
To be frank, the telco business is a business that requires significantly leaner, faster and more agile software and development processes than the majority possesses. This has led to MVNOs taking over significant aspects of the market as they offer more customer-centric and flexible solutions without the burden of running and maintaining their own networks. Flagship telcos cannot leave this playing field to innovative MVNOs and need to innovate at a much faster pace. With much of the market becoming commoditized, innovation through convergence products, higher contract flexibility and bundling are the future. These require very different commerce, provisioning and billing systems that largely don’t exist in today’s telcos or are architecturally so complex that new features take months if not years to roll out. So, in most cases, telcos need to and have started to look at how they can decouple their systems more, work with microservices, more flexible agile development teams and methods, DevOps, etc. And as pioneers in those sectors or agile IT, we are often asked to help with those transformations from the inside. Not only as consultants who make suggestions but as agile transformation teams that work hand-in-hand with internal teams. Furthermore, telcos would also greatly benefit from taking advantage of our solutions, which can be flexibly integrated into existing BPM- and CRM-systems such as AAX and Salesforce Vlocity.
Where do you see AI/ML taking a foothold in telecom process improvements?
There is a huge amount of work that happens within a telco that could be automated more: Many different legacy systems, call centre staff needing to log into multiple systems to find a customer, not being able to make automated process optimizations, etc. One example that we have recently been working on is escalation prediction. With relatively simple machine learning algorithms it is possible to predict – with a very high degree of accuracy – that a certain new or migrated customer will run into an escalation, which can then be addressed before the customer even has to find out. Other areas include analysing usage behaviour, making automated suggestions to more customer-beneficial contract options or personalizing the shopping and upgrade experience more. These are all fields where we are currently active.
What are the main reasons why telcos are not able to innovate quickly enough?
One of the main reasons is certainly the way that big corporate IT used to be structured. Big silos, separation of development and operations and far too much interdependence between very large legacy systems. Very few telcos are able to take the route of congstar and build a new IT in a complete greenfield approach. So, what most telcos have to do is to carve out certain parts of their business and develop those on a new greenfield approach, do it continuously and step by step make their IT more agile, move away from classic enterprise IT paradigms to leaner IT, API-first and loosely coupled vs. deeply integrated solutions. This requires not only a different mindset concerning software development, but also a much closer engagement on a partnership level with their vendors. In my opinion, true partnership is the strongest asset we have.
What are the biggest USPs for telcos in a highly saturated market? Where do you see convergence products playing their part?
As stated earlier, I believe that telcos need to keep up with the quick innovation of MVNOs in their respective market. Of course, you could take the stance and say “my network, my terms” but many markets have shown, that as soon as strong regulation comes in, just being the network provider and being forced to resell your network to MVNOs at fixed rates can quickly leave you in a situation where the MVNOs are able to derive more value for their customers than you can. As such, I strongly believe the big telcos have to start rethinking their value proposition to their customers. Claims such as “best network” or “no dropped calls” are outdated and no longer excite customers in an oversaturated market. People want choice. They want device flexibility, they don’t want lock-ins, they want convenient convergence products at attractive rates, they want flexible data solutions that also meet their home needs, they want their relationship with their telco to adjust to their life circumstances. So, I strongly believe a combination of more convergence products and higher flexibility with truly personalized customer service are key to growing the business in the current climate.
What kind of impact is digital transformation making on the retail value chain? How has the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the ongoing changes?
I would say we need to separate immediate impact from long-term impact. Of course, during the first lockdown phase, and I am saying “first” on purpose because I don’t think we have seen the last of it, companies relying heavily on their retail footprint have been essentially decimated to dust. In a retail world where you might be working off a five percent EBITDA margin, losing 25 percent of your annual turnover, is, needless to say, an unbelievable exogenic shock. As we are easing in and out of lockdowns, that impact differs between retailers depending on their omnichannel capabilities. As such, the impact for a congstar, that has no stationary retail footprint and can do anything and everything digitally and remotely is close to nil, whereas carriers relying on people to walk into their stores to purchase contracts have been hit much harder. Outside the telco space, brands and retailers with strong E-Commerce presence have seen a dampened effect, whereas luxury retailers especially, have suffered tremendously as they refused to go digital in the past. In many cases, all their airport sales disappeared overnight and they are virtually incapable of selling to their target audience.
The next few years will see a lot of statements being made about how COVID-19 put the last nail in the coffin of retail but I believe the reality is that Omnichannel, or unified retail, was the only one with a future even pre-COVID. Pure downtown retail was already on its last breath in many categories and had survived on selling and re-leasing real estate assets, etc., rather than innovating the customer experience. From an overall retail perspective, retailers who have invested at an appropriate clip, both analogue and digital, have built the ability to collaborate into their ecosystems. Retailers need to be more customer-centric. Having no customer-centricity equals failure. So, in my view, all that COVID has done is to stop delaying the inevitable decline of the legacy retail as well as the rise of the new breed of retail.
How important is it for retailers to implement a customer-led strategy? How does the Omnichannel experience help achieve this?
I think the answer is very clear: A customer-led strategy is the most important factor for success. Customer expectations have grown significantly over the last few years. Whether that is healthy or not is a different subject, but the fact is that companies such as Amazon have led a revolution of customer-centricity. Have you ever heard of anyone having had a bad experience with Amazon’s return policies or their speed of resolving your problems for you? With a razor-sharp focus on customer satisfaction before profits, they have become the most customer-centric retailer in the world. Now, we shouldn’t concede the whole world of retail to Amazon but we can certainly learn from the fact that putting the customer first is one of the strongest investments in the future. Customers that are loyal to you as a brand or retailer don’t check prices anymore but build relationships that last.
You transformed Frankfurt Airport into the first Omnichannel airport. What are some of the key organizational factors to consider before undertaking a transformation of this scale? How will airline retail strategy change post-COVID?
Some of the key learnings are mainly that software alone cannot solve organizational transformation challenges. Agility and innovation have to be driven mainly by mindset and culture, not process and software. The aviation travel retail industry as a whole has long stood by and failed to innovate on a relevant scale. The results were a continuous decline in spend per passenger and an increased disinterest in the proposition. Post-COVID, airlines and airports will have to do more with less, which means that driving non-aviation revenues will be key for survival. So, while investment and CAPEX are extremely difficult for the aviation sector right now, investment in digital commerce solutions will be key to their survival; the result: We will see more and more airlines developing their brands and making them stronger. We have seen this transformation pre-COVID and it will be accelerated post-COVID.
What were the main challenges you faced with AOE during the pandemic and lockdown?
We essentially transferred the entire operations to remote work within two days and were almost surprised at how seamless it went. Teams didn’t only maintain their velocity (output) but in some cases even increased it. So, from a purely operational point of view, we saw no adverse effects. However, where we did get affected badly of course was our aviation division where traffic went quickly to zero. Our E-Commerce platforms at major airports and airlines suffered strongly and so did the revenues from those customers. Luckily, some of our customers had already launched the ability to offer home delivery without people flying and they have been thriving at levels manifold to that of pre-COVID. However, the ones that still relied on people to travel to purchase saw their sales disappear within weeks. Recovery will be slower than expected, but we are bringing new low-investment solutions into the market as we speak, in order to make sure the recovery is a digitally led one.
What do you hope to achieve with AOE in the next few years?
AOE has proven multiple times that it can move industries to a new level of customer-centricity and innovation. From the early days of building some of the first global subscription services such as PlayStation Network, to changing the telco business in Germany to making airports and airlines operate as Omnichannel retailers. We love to innovate and create customer value, led by agile transformation. We aim to continue our footprint in the telco space within Europe and become a leader in the aviation space. Additionally, we have multiple parallel innovation units around the topics of ML/AI, IT Security, Life Sciences and FinTech, which we plan to grow to substantial units as well.
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