Etisalat: searching for efficiency across a diverse portfolio

Etisalat International’s CTO shares insights into key MENA markets

Read this article to learn:

  • How the Etisalat portfolio is developing in terms of technology rollout
  • An update on Etisalat’s key MENA opcos
  • The main operational challenges Etisalat faces across their portfolio
  • Etisalat’s current thoughts on selling towers and working with towercos
  • How Etisalat is looking to work with ESCOs and why

Etisalat operate across 16 different countries, with an extensive presence in the MENA region including UAE, Saudi ArabiaPakistan, Afghanistan and Egypt. TowerXchange spoke to Etisalat International’s Group CTO, Hatem Bamatraf, to find out more about plans for their MENA opcos, Etisalat’s current take on selling towers and network sharing and what partnerships and products they’re looking to deploy in order to boost efficiency across the region.

TowerXchange: Please introduce Etisalat’s global footprint and tell us about your opcos worldwide. Can you give us a picture of how far each opco is in terms of technology rollout?

Hatem Bamatraf, CTO, Etisalat International:

We operate in 16 countries across the region with approximately 145 million subscribers. Our portfolio of companies differs in terms of scale and technology. In our key markets, our networks are advanced with 4G with large population coverage as well as a very high penetration of FTTH. When it comes to new technology launches, Etisalat Group is always at the forefront, believing that technology opens up new opportunities for the business and operations.

TowerXchange: We’d love to know your thoughts on some of the key MENA markets in which you operate. Can you talk us through the growth potential in the MENA markets in which you operate?

Hatem Bamatraf, CTO, Etisalat International:

In Egypt, our focus is on growing the 4G coverage while managing the needs for 3G capacity. We are happy with the progress and we will probably be adding more sites per year in the short term to penetrate new areas.

I think KSA needs more cooperation between operators in terms of sharing. I hope that the degree of sharing will increase, especially as 5G rollouts are approaching. What is interesting about KSA is also the future of fixed infrastructure given the ambitious plans of the government to drive fibre adoption.

The situation in Afghanistan is complex mainly due to two reasons: security and fragmentation of the market. We continue to invest in our network to enable traffic growth and extend coverage into remote areas. I think that the market in Afghanistan needs transformation if it is to continue growing and securing investments.

Pakistan is a very competitive and I would say challenging market.  We continue to share passive infrastructure with other operators wherever it is feasible and economic. We are also evaluating other forms of network cooperation. I don’t necessarily think of towercos as a requirement for passive sharing adoption – I see it more as a financial decision on which assets the operators wants to own and which not.

TowerXchange: You operate in a very diverse set of markets – what do you see as the main operational challenges across your portfolio, and what plans do you have to tackle any inefficiencies which may be creeping in? 

Hatem Bamatraf, CTO, Etisalat International:

That’s true. The markets we operate in vary a lot in terms of disposable incomes, infrastructure and local resources. In terms of operational challenges, we are trying to constantly reduce the costs of providing both data and voice services. In some markets, such as Afghanistan or parts of Pakistan security is a serious issue that adds challenges to our operations.

Our stance [towards tower transactions] has not changed. We look at the situation of the specific opco and the specific market it operates in. We are always in favour of increasing the utilisation of our assets to reduce the cost base

TowerXchange: You’ve completed one tower deal in the past, in Nigeria. What’s Etisalat’s current stance on tower transactions, how important is it for you to retain control of your assets? 

Hatem Bamatraf, CTO, Etisalat International:

Our stance has not changed. We look at the situation of the specific opco and the specific market it operates in. We are always in favour of increasing the utilisation of our assets to reduce the cost base. We look at this topic very carefully and evaluate all our options. We also monitor what’s going on in terms of tower deals around us. 

TowerXchange: ESCOs are on the rise in the MEA region and have been producing strong results. How open is Etisalat to working with ESCOs?

Hatem Bamatraf, CTO, Etisalat International:

The ESCO model is something we are currently evaluating in a couple of our markets and we are open to engaging with ESCO providers. We think that the potential and the attractiveness of such deals depends on the details of the economic model in each market. The key driver of the savings is the deployment of alternative power (solar) meaning the business case improves as fuel prices go up. We need to find ways to make sure that we, as an MNO, also benefit from that upside in the future, especially as ESCO deals are typically agreed for at least 10 years. Another important factor is currency exposure – we believe that the deal should reflect the providers underlying cost base and the non-local exposure should be limited to the capex portion.

In a bid to support the development of the nascent tower industry in MENA and foster improved infrastructure sharing, TowerXchange will be hosting a VIP networking event in Dubai on 29-30 January, welcoming operators, towercos, regulators, investors and other important industry stakeholders to discuss key issues and opportunities. Hatem Bamatraf has already confirmed his participation, as have other regional experts including Saudi Telecom Company, Zain, Omantel, IHS Towers, American Tower, edotco and TASC Towers. For further information, please click here.

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