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On the road to 5G for all with stc Bahrain

stc Bahrain has taken an early and decisive lead in 5G rollout in Bahrain, having already covered half the nation of 1.64 million with the latest wireless technology. stc Bahrain’s CEO Nezar Banabeela explains how 5G, transformation into an IDSP, and digital-first service models are keeping the telco a step ahead of OTT competitors.

By Gary Maidment
Mar 2020

stc Bahrain has taken an early and decisive lead in 5G rollout, having already covered half the nation of 1.64 million with the latest wireless technology. We spoke to stc Bahrain CEO Nezar Banabeela about how the combination of 5G, transformation into an IDSP, and digital-first service models are keeping the telco a step ahead of OTT competitors while contributing to achieving the nation’s digital strategy. 

On the road to 5G

WinWin: What initiatives have underpinned your digital transformation into an IDSP?

Nezar Banabeela: Enabling digital transformation in the Kingdom of Bahrain coupled with revolutionizing the telecommunications landscape has been our mission since the day we launched in 2010. And since then, we’ve been a major driving force in delivering digital transformation across the Kingdom. In line with the country’s economic vision 2030, we’ve gone to great lengths to strengthen Bahrain's leading digital position in the region, continuously introducing innovative solutions and the latest technologies to the people of Bahrain.

Nezar Banabeela

Since our launch, we’ve positioned ourselves at the forefront of innovation and focused on bringing the latest developments in technology into the Kingdom of Bahrain. And we’ve taken this commitment to the next level over the past few years by enacting a strategy to transform ourselves into an integrated digital service provider. As part of this transformation journey, we’ve successfully completed multiple initiatives, which have played a pivotal role in both stc Bahrain’s transformation and also the transformation of the Bahrain market into a digitally oriented market.

In addition to a comprehensive suite of ICT products targeting the B2B segment, we’ve launched stc Pay, a fully integrated mobile wallet and the only wallet in the country accessible to the unbanked population. Today stc Pay is the most popular mobile wallet in Bahrain, with the largest customer base and the largest merchant network.

stc Pay

We also launched our Connected Life portfolio, offering smart home devices, connected car devices, and smart wearables. 

And we offer end-to-end home entertainment solutions including high-speed home broadband and TV/VoD content and devices, including smart speakers, TVs, and gaming consoles. These initiatives demonstrate our commitment to evolving into a digital service provider. For us, digital transformation isn’t just another management project, it’s a way of life.

WinWin: What challenges have you had to overcome on the digital transformation journey?

Banabeela: stc Bahrain started its digital transformation journey with the aim of enriching the lives of its customers by creating a truly integrated digital service experience. Over the years we’ve launched numerous digital transformation initiatives across both customer-facing and internal business fronts. In 2018, we won the Best Digital Transformation award at the 2018 Global Business Outlook awards. However, we’ve had to overcome multiple challenges to achieve our current state of digital maturity:

Demand for global data connectivity: Global demand for mobile data services has been growing at a phenomenal rate, with mobile data traffic doubling every year. To meet the rising demand, we’ve had to focus on acquiring the required technological enablers, including additional spectrum, site infrastructure; next-gen network technologies like 4G, 4G+, and 5G; and on enhancing NW efficiency through cloud core virtualization.

Diminishing differentiation: The adoption of purely data-driven business models has continued to increase. In today’s telecom landscape, differentiation can be achieved by companies that can best utilize consumer data to drive business models. Hence, we’ve maintained a strong focus on enhancing our big data and analytics capabilities to identify new use cases for maximizing value generation

Digital customer experience: Customer expectations for levels of personalization, on-demand access, and quality are increasingly influenced by digital players like Uber and Amazon. Today’s customers judge the quality of services against the best they have experienced in any industry. To adapt to these evolving customer requirements and successfully deliver a seamless digital experience, we’ve invested in digitalizing all customer touchpoints and journeys. Last year, for example, we launched a digital experience enhancement program that focuses on digitalizing all customer touchpoints and expanding stc Bahrain’s digital sales and care channels 

Growing digital disruption: The emergence of disruptive digital-first business models has increased, driven by start-ups and technology giants. They’re now expanding and competing with telcos in the area of traditional communication services and are in turn capturing more consumer income share. To tackle this, we’ve focused on re-inventing our business model and venturing into new digital and ICT adjacencies. One of our first adjacent ventures was the launch of our fintech solution stc Pay in 2018. Going forward, we remain focused on introducing more innovative propositions in Bahrain across multiple adjacent industries.

Digital vs legacy telecom culture: Developing a digital-first culture was another challenge as well as a key imperative of our digital transformation drive. A healthy culture that’s aligned with a company’s digital agenda can spur innovation, while a misaligned culture can be change-resistant. Digital initiatives demand an open and flexible culture to support collaboration and innovation. As such, we defined clear strategic imperatives focusing on developing a digital-first mindset across our organization. Through our culture transformation program, we aim to foster a culture that’s fully oriented towards enabling the digital way of thinking and operating.

WinWin: What customer-centricity features differentiate stc Bahrain? 

Banabeela: Throughout the years, we’ve been recognized for our customer-centric approach and have received awards for offering best-in-class customer service and surpassing customer expectations. 

We pride ourselves on having one of the largest and most diverse sales and payment networks of customer touch points in Bahrain. This includes a comprehensive retail network, a user-friendly web portal, retail outlets, and payment channels across the kingdom, and a distribution channel with over 3,500 outlets spread across the country.

WinWin: Can you outline your current 5G progress and deployment plans for 2020?

Banabeela: Since our establishment, we’ve been working hand in hand with Bahrain Telecom Regulatory Authority to transform Bahrain's telecommunications landscape to achieve the highest international standards. And in June 2018, we achieved a milestone by becoming one of the first countries in the world to introduce 5G elements across our national network. In 2019, we adopted the latest 5G core technologies, spectrum sharing between LTE and 5G, the latest spectrum management technologies, and agile transport layer technologies using Huawei’s solutions. We thus became the first operator in Bahrain to commercially provide a 5G network to its customers.

5G Group

Doing so immediately catapulted us into the leadership position as the country’s biggest 5G network operator, covering more than 50 percent of the nation with enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) service capabilities and 5G home broadband services. 

In addition to data speeds of up to 1.2 Gbps, we’ve developed a wide range of premium home broadband services and devices to enhance the home broadband experience alongside unlimited Internet. We’re also investing in pioneering a number of services, which will enable us to cover fully fledged services in the 5G era across our customer base. These include eMBB, Ultra-Reliable and Low Latency Communications (URLLC), and massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC). 

While eMBB focuses on services characterized by high data rates, such as HD videos, VR, and AR, URLLC focuses on latency-sensitive services such as autonomous vehicles and remote surgery. mMTC focuses on services that have high requirements for connection density, like we see in typical smart city scenarios.

This is just the start of building on this foundation to deliver broad and deep transformational 5G.

WinWin: When do you expect 5G to become a mass market technology in Bahrain?

Banabeela: We operate the country’s biggest 5G network, covering more than 50 percent of the nation and ushering in a new era of 5G accessibility and affordability in the first step towards 5G for all.

We’re working night and day to expand our reach and increase the number of locations where 5G is available to meet the increasing demand of our customers. They’re becoming more Internet-savvy and are looking for real-time, on-the-go products and services. But the 5G ecosystem is still developing and it needs time before it can become a mass market technology, as there are very few 5G devices available today.  

WinWin: What business strategies are you planning to focus on as 5G, IoT, and AI mature and converge?

Banabeela: The increasing adoption of OTT voice, messaging and content services has significantly impacted telcos’ core revenues from voice and messaging services. 

Some practical business opportunities that we’re focusing on include fintech and IoT. Given the vast population diversity in the GCC region, we’re seeing increasing demand for convenient digital financial service solutions. Given our vast connectivity infrastructure, unique set of technical capabilities, and strong portfolio of partnerships, we believe fintech is a good opportunity for us to achieve incremental revenue growth.

Similarly, on the ICT side, 5G-enabled IoT service applications, including asset tracking, fleet management, connected cars, smart homes, and other cloud-based services, represent a sizeable growth opportunity for us.

WinWin: Can you outline your collaboration with Huawei and describe what you expect from us as a long-term partner?

Banabeela: Following the successful completion of the largest 5G network in partnership with Huawei, we’re pleased to announce that we’re enhancing our 5G broadband services. As an important technology milestone, this will enable us to tailor our service offerings, capitalize on emerging trends and provide our customers with greater choice and flexibility to embrace new experiences and applications on our high-performing 5G network.

We know that by working with Huawei we can push the boundaries and provide our customers with the best services that the 5G network have to offer.