Etisalat: “Operators in the MENA region have really stepped up”

Juan Jose de la Torre, Etisalat

Juan Jose “JJ” de la Torre, A/Vice President – Marketing Strategy and Planning at Abu Dhabi-based operator Etisalat, discusses the company’s LTE and fibre rollouts, how it plans to drive user adoption of the attendant high speeds on offer, and the opportunities presented by over-the-top video delivery.

What major developments have there been for the broadband industry in the MENA region this past year?

In terms of mobile, over the years Etisalat has invested in the best equipment and robust technology infrastructure to support reliable network performance and high-quality connectivity that enables its customers to enjoy making their calls without interruptions. Etisalat pioneered the GSM and 3G services in UAE and currently connects the whole country through its GSM network and more than 99 per cent of the populated areas in the UAE through its 3G network.

We have seen that the developed countries in the MENA region, particularly in the Gulf area, are rolling out LTE. Etisalat is taking the lead in this, in terms of LTE coverage and capacity. Etisalat has deployed an FDD-LTE network that allows full mobility and smooth transition between LTE and HSPA+, enabling customers to stay connected from coast to coast.

Regarding fixed broadband, Etisalat continues to be among the top players in the world in terms of Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) coverage. At present, around 90 per cent of our market is fiberised. Suiting the UAE’s demographics and geography, FTTH can fully satisfy high-end home and business users and well meet customers’ requirements.

Overall, what we are seeing is that operators in the MENA region have really stepped up and put in a world-class infrastructure. In the UAE, Etisalat envisions that all UAE residents will soon be digitally connected. Through a mix of advanced broadband technologies, the corporation sees to add significant value to customers’ lifestyles, enabling them to achieve much more than what is possible today.

Are broadband networks finally catching up with the technological aspirations of consumers, businesses and public bodies?

The Gulf region is currently in a very privileged position, because what is in the ground today is much more advanced than what the market is demanding for. We have made an investment that is far ahead of what has been made in many countries in Europe. Now, we are aggressively forging a path forward in terms of customer experience improvement.

Still, the Gulf region and the MENA region are in the early stages in terms of user behaviour and consumption of broadband. Currently, the content that is broadcast on our networks is predominantly Western content, and the applications available are mostly from Western companies. This does however present a massive opportunity for local Arabic content producers and applications developers, considering the Middle East comprises nearly half a billion of the world’s population.

In other places, it is the user who is pushing the operator to go the extra mile and deploy more fibre, whereas in our case the fibre is already in the ground and the capability is already there. We only need to wait until the market is more mature and starts moving onto the next stage.

We have a very aggressive roadmap to deliver unprecedented speeds compared with Europe in the next 18 months. What is coming ahead is very attractive and very appealing, but at the same time we need to do it in a way that actually drives user-adoption, and generates mainstream products which are not only for the most advanced user but for the masses. Essentially, we need to help the market move forward to understand the benefits of fast broadband.

Will there still be a place for DSL technology in five years’ time?

Selective rollouts of DSL will be a necessity, not only in terms of economic implications, but also in terms of technical feasibility. This means that there will be certain discrete boroughs where it will be technically difficult or uneconomic to roll out and penetrate with fibre, so we need to have DSL to meet prevailing customer needs.

Our commitment is that we will always try to provide fibre and if fibre is not available, we are going to do as much as possible to make it happen. However, if we cannot deliver fibre, we will offer alternative technological solutions such as DSL or LTE to cope with market needs and customer needs. As a top player, Etisalat having a number of service delivery platforms is useful and I consider this as an advantage for the UAE’s end-users.

How big a challenge does over-the-top video pose to broadband operators and networks?

For us, OTT is an opportunity. We see OTT as a way to expand our product portfolio and deliver a 360-degree experience to our customers. Etisalat has been a pioneer in the region and one of the few operators in the world to launch its own OTT services.

The Etisalat OTT Platform enables telcos and ISPs to generate new revenue streams by offering enterprise platform services to media businesses seeking to deliver their own branded video services directly to global consumers via broadband PCs, mobile and OTT devices. This model provides an additional value proposition for content providers syndicating into telco or ISP service networks.

Today, we have an OTT version of our video services called ‘eLife OnWeb’, which, so far, has been rolled out across a number of devices with a number of different manufacturers, all across the MENA region. This means that a customer located in a country where we do not offer fixed-line services would still be able to enjoy our eLife OnWeb video services.

It is an opportunity to expand our reach and our supremacy in the entertainment ecosystem. At the same time, it will really enrich the customer experience. It is a way to realise our vision of a multi-device strategy, where the entertainment and the infotainment follow the end-user across difference screens, different devices and different markets. We really believe that OTT is going to be the way to materialise a great opportunity for us. I believe that OTT on multiple devices is true ‘ICT fixed-mobile convergence’ in action.

The service was launched in July of last year, in partnership with LG. It has been embedded in the LG Smart TVs sold in the MENA region. We are now expanding this to a number of other manufacturers – not just manufacturers of TVs, but also of set-top boxes, tablets,  smartphones and so on. We are putting our OnWeb application in a lot of devices.

The eLife OnWeb application gives you access to live Internet-based content, to pay-per-view, to Etisalat’s On-Demand (video-on-demand) and to our applications store. It really opens up a range of possibilities to a customer who is not using an Etisalat network.

Juan Jose de la Torre (“JJ”) will be speaking at the Broadband World Forum MEA 2012 event taking place in Dubai on 25-27 March, 2012. For more information and to register, please visit

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