interview


CTIO, Etisalat: “We should not wait for standards to innovate”


Marwan Zawaydeh, CTIO of Etisalat, UAE

Marwan Zawaydeh is the CTIO of Etisalat, the largest mobile operator in the UAE. He is appearing on Day One of the LTE World Summit taking place on the 23-24 May 2012 CCIB, Barcelona, Spain, where he will be speaking on the topic of the impact of LTE on operator business models. Ahead of the conference, Telecoms.com catches up with him to found out the latest on Etisalat’s LTE roll-out.

What are the main milestones you have achieved with relation to your LTE rollout?

In a short time frame, we have achieved major milestones related to the LTE network rollout. As an example, a complete end-to-end dedicated packet core for the LTE network has been built. In 2011 we covered 80 per cent of the total populated area in the UAE through the integration of 1000 sites. This was done after an extensive testing phase to ensure full compatibility and interoperability with the existing 2G/3G networks for mobility to ensure service continuity. Nevertheless, we have started reframing of the 1800MHz band to ensure LTE indoor coverage can be deployed as fast as possible with the minimum of cost.

What are the main challenges you have faced, or expect to face, as you roll out LTE?

We have faced several challenges as we are one of the early movers to this technology. We can summarize these challenges as follows:

– Availability of terminals (dongles, handset, routers) and the frequency bands that are supported by the terminals

– Availability of the product by the vendor and mature hardware.

– How to use the existing site infrastructure to accommodate the LTE requirement from space and antenna perspective.

– Deployment of LTE network using different spectrum by different operators worldwide.

– Handover capabilities between multiple spectrums and different technologies

– Ecosystem maturity (spectrum and terminal availability)

– Spectrum re-farming and availability of 800MHz.

– Deployment of SingleRAN cabinet solution to optimize the CAPEX and OPEX.

– Technology selection and rollout strategy for the different mobile networks (2G,3G and 4G) to ensure excellent customer experience and optimize costs.

– Impact of data traffic explosion and increase of smart devices on network performance and customer experience.

– Indoor coverage and MIMO implementation.

– Offering voice, SMS and video calls over LTE Network and having the terminals to support them, as well as the launching new services such as gaming, video conferencing and other interactive video applications which require high bandwidth and low latency.

How can LTE and the emphasis on data on its own halt declining revenue streams?

By having a clear business model that is based on offering innovative new services. With its full IP and simplified flat architecture LTE technology is superior to 2G/3G so these should utilize the high throughput and low latency of LTE. The new services will also open opportunities for partnership with application developers and content providers to offer innovative, interactive advanced video services, while optimizing the quality of customer experience. From an incumbent operator point of view, such as Etisalat, we need to consider enhancing the customer experience, increase revenue and optimizing CAPEX and OPEX costs.

What is your take on the unlimited data tariffs? Are they sustainable?

Although unlimited data traffic provides an attractive marketing message with the dramatic increase of mobile data traffic, due to the continuous increase of the smartphone applications, video calls and limited network bandwidth resources, the unlimited data traffic term is seen as unsustainable. Mobile operators should be more inventive with data bundles as well as deploying innovative indoor solutions such as wifi, and small cells.

With so much attention paid to the radio access network is there enough focus on backhaul?

We believe backhaul should facilitate the maximum throughput attainable on the radio access network. With the deployment of 3G/UMTS in 2004 and then subsequently FTTH/GPON in 2007, we already started modernising our mobile backhaul over IP by using FTTM (Fibre to the Mobile) for backhaul of 2G/3G base stations. Today, Etisalat has one of the largest fibre penetration ratios in the world, with fibre connecting most of our base stations.

With the adoption of LTE and its enormous bandwidth potential (keeping LTE-Advanced in view), we have already started developing a converged mobile backhaul network. This has the capacity to serve 2G, 3G and LTE traffic over a single fibre today and will be upgradable to more than 1Gbps capacity per site using NG-PON backhaul. As fibre infrastructure is already laid, such evolution will be without any fork-lift upgrade.

Moreover, with the upcoming evolution towards small cells and BBU Cloud (Distributed BBU and RRU), we are also keeping an eye over mobile fronthaul requirements and will prepare the network to cope with them.

Do you think that VoLTE will have an impact and if so in what time frame?

We will notice the real uptake in LTE subscribers once VoLTE is fully functional, so in that sense it will have a big impact. However, it requires a smooth handover between different technologies to ensure excellent quality of service and this should be the focus of the operators and vendors at this stage. Single Radio Voice Call Continuity (SRVCC) will be the first step towards network conversion and this will play a key role in enhancing the customer experience and expediting the monetization of investment in LTE. In terms of timeframe, terminals that support Circuit Switched Fallback will be available in the market in Q2 of 2012, while the handsets that will support the SRVCC will be available by Q4-2012. This will help increase the demand for LTE network. We are conducting trials with major smartphone vendors and the test results so far are very promising.

Is there enough innovation occurring in the mobile network industry? Can you provide some examples?

I feel more innovation is needed. Operators should innovate to be able to compete with the OTT players. From my point of view an innovation culture will be integrated with our corporate strategy we should not wait for standards to be established before innovating. Innovation shall be opened to our customers and applied in away to create a more loyal community.

Where do you stand on over-the-top players contributing to the costs of rolling out networks?

The over-the-top players are still leading the innovation fight by using our network to reach our customers with the best ideas to solve customer needs. As it stands, operator will keep paying the bills for network expansion, while the OTTs will keep increasing the revenue. The costs involved are not only that of network expansion but also from innovative social media services that impact on voice services and therefore on our main revenue streams. Mobile operators need to grab part of these revenues by developing a partnership model with over-the-top players by complementing their solutions through offerings such as customer reach, cloud infrastructure, bill payments and security solutions and adapting to upcoming standards; such as “Joyn”, which is part of the IMS road map.

What changes would you hope to see in the industry in the next five years?

With the fast adoption of the LTE technology with its exceptional customer experience thanks to its low latency and high throughput, I foresee more vertical integration across the mobile industry. The main differentiation will be in how to apply this technology that is changing many people’s way of life and creating a connected world. More creative cloud-based services will be launched, M2M will take a huge focus and draw investment, and new business models based on revenue sharing will be the way forward for growth.

From the network side, I see a move toward all IP architectures and IMS based systems with more convergence in 2G/3G/4G networks at both the access and core side.

Why are you attending the LTE World Summit and what are you looking forward to most?

We are attending to share the experiences and challenges that have been faced by operators in the rollout of their LTE networks and to get an update on their technology strategy, network road map and plans to address the many challenges which include dealing with data traffic growth, the increase in of smartphones, how to enhance the customer experience, the off-loading of 3G/HSDPA networks, how to improve network efficiency, how to lower network costs and how to enhance overall revenue.

The LTE World Summit is taking place on the 23-24 May 2012 CCIB, Barcelona, Spain. Click here to register your interest.


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