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Oman presents a distinct narrative as its telecommunications sector, traditionally focused on connectivity, plays a significant role in shaping the country’s digital landscape. Across the Middle East, telcos are spearheading digital transformations, modernizing processes, systems, and infrastructure.

Telecom Review recently held a virtual panel entitled “Spotlight on Oman’s Digital Journey,” which was moderated by Dr. Abdullah S. Al-Balushi, Technology Consulting Partner, Ernst and Young (EY) with the participation of:

  • Quique Vivas, CCO, Ooredoo Oman
  • Shadli Al Abdulsalam, CEO, FRiENDi Mobile Oman
  • Nicolas Blixell, VP and Head of Ericsson GCC
  • Aneth Guerra, COO, Vodafone Oman

After an introduction and welcome note by Christine Ziadeh, Director of Content for Media and Events at Telecom Review Group, the panelists shed light on the digital transformation of telcos, as well as their deployed use cases and enablers, further elaborating on notable success stories across the region.

Also Read: Oman's Quest for Building a Tech-Advanced Nation

Telcos in Oman Embrace Digital Transformation

Shadli Al Abdulsalam, CEO of FRiENDi Mobile Oman, said that telcos have undergone changes, notably highlighting that “where we are today versus where we were before” has been transformational. In general, digital transformation has resulted in reduced costs and personalized services, proven to be beneficial in targeting customers.

Due to the digital transformation process of moving customers from analog to digital, “it is essential for us to grow, not only in revenue, but to have a value-based centric model,” explained Abdulsalam. This process includes helping customers from the access (onboarding) stage to the utilization of the services.

Adding her view to the discussion, Aneth Guerra, COO at Vodafone Oman, noted that for them, “digitalization is a path for opportunities and options, which is why it’s important.” This has a two-folded impact on the company: operations and customer experience. The introduction of automation and AI is important in many different areas of Vodafone Oman, resulting in efficiencies, fault detection, and energy savings.

“This is not an easy path by any means,” stated Guerra. “Generally, what operators will do is they are going to do it by pieces—upfront to backend, or isolate areas—in starting the digitalization process.”

As a digital-born company, the Vodafone App serves as an “everything” portal and it allows Vodafone to see its customer from a different perspective. In a competitive environment, the key factor is the kind of customer experience you provide, from onboarding to their overall interactions with your company.

Yet, Guerra emphasized that “being born digital” does not mean that everything Vodafone does is exclusively digital. “We are adapting to different market segments, [which are evolving] at their own pace, and we will continue in the journey of getting more and more digitalized.”

Nicolas Blixell, VP and Head of Ericsson GCC, explained that Ericsson is working closely with operators in Oman to lay down 5G networks, which aligns with the digitalization goals of Oman Vision 2040. Ericsson has had a presence in Oman for over 50 years, and Blixell emphasized that implementing high-speed, low-latency network capabilities requires industry-wide collaboration. As a leading vendor, they work across the world and share the best practices in Oman. “The technology is ready but it will take time,” added Blixell.

According to Blixell, what is quite unique in Oman is the massive adoption of fixed wireless access (FWA). Over the last three years, one operator has delivered 92% of home broadband via 5G FWA, demonstrating the country's strong enthusiasm for this technology. He reiterated this point by stating that, “Oman is a 5G country.”

Quique Vivas, CCO of Ooredoo Oman, agreed that the level of digitalization and customer onboarding (personalization) within Oman makes it a “mature market.” Although, he believes that there are still various areas that require improvement. “The focus should be on investing in infrastructure, maximizing the CapEx, and utilizing the networks.”

Vivas reiterated that Oman has “a clear vision and [the] right ambition of being the digital hub in the Gulf,” and to achieve this, they need to make sure that the “investments, strategies, and competitive dynamics” are operating in a favorable environment.

Overcoming Challenges in Digital Inclusion and Cybersecurity

In terms of challenges, the FRiENDi Mobile Oman CEO highlighted the sectoral importance of digital inclusion. In their target segment, the users tend to be “price-sensitive,” hence, they must actively “educate the customers on how to use services and how to navigate the online space.” The online app they launched two years ago is a testimony to this effort.

Being in the market for the past 15 years as a telco, FRiENDi understands that emerging in different markets and verticals is a must, and being part of Beyond ONE’s digital community plays a huge role in bridging this gap. He emphasized that trust and education must be particularly nurtured in this respect.

Vodafone Oman’s COO, Aneth Guerra, emphasized that on the path to digitalization, "the number one item you need to check is your cybersecurity and security posture.” She explained that opening the digital door introduces new threats, requiring a different approach to protection than before.

Moreover, she highlighted that it is important to build security by design to ensure that you have the security levels that are required. However, Guerra stressed that "last-mile cybersecurity"—the people—is absolutely crucial. She pointed out that nearly 80% of issues arise from employees not following instructions and other related situations.

“Digitalization is not only a machine kind of thing; it is a human process, and we play a big part in it. We are digitalizing, but we are also becoming far more responsible in a greater world where we need to protect ourselves,” she highlighted.

Empowering Oman's Telco Future: 5G Ventures, Customer-Centricity, and Security Strategies

For Ericsson, Oman is an important country to operate in as it has internationally competitive operators. In 5G deployment, return on investment (ROI) and customer retention are anticipated due to the technology's appeal. Combined with value-added services beyond mobile broadband, the "catch-up effect" highlights the need to capture the market by developing more use cases for enterprises, which are experiencing double-digit growth in demand.

In order to achieve cost efficiency in the industry, Blixell unveiled that USD 6 billion is being invested in R&D annually. “The name of the game is to have economies of scale to justify our customers’ business case; we believe we are competitive in that area.”

To go to the next step, Blixell referenced the establishment of Ericsson’s Center of Excellence (CoE) for Omani skills development. He spoke about a notable agritech-based use case powered by 5G that aims to enhance food production in a sustainable way. These education efforts and mentorship programs are instrumental in disseminating digital knowledge throughout the country.

The Ooredoo Oman CCO concurred, stating that telcos are being referred to as “disruptors” as they continue to “put customers at the center, addressing touchpoints in different channels (both digitally and offline).”

In contrast, Vivas believes that “telcos have an even more important role, not in catching up, but in leading.” This includes developing the next use cases and infrastructure that will take Oman to the next level. He acknowledges the country's maturity in 5G FWA adoption, noting a trend towards transitioning to SD-WAN and establishing platforms for B2B2C. This trajectory is poised to elevate the digital society to unprecedented levels.

Chiming in, the panel moderator, Dr. Abdullah S. Al-Balushi, emphasized the pivotal role of a collaborating alliance in fostering innovation and progress within the industry. Such alliances facilitate knowledge-sharing, resource pooling, and collective problem-solving, ultimately driving the advancement of common goals and initiatives.

To succeed, Al Abdulsalam indicated that telcos must focus on “how to grow and monetize our [their] base” by finding out what kind of services should be provided to customers, especially given the potential global market penetration rate of 140%. In FRiENDi’s case, shifting to a value-centric model and applying predictive modeling has been beneficial. FRiENDi uses profiling tools to analyze and profile customers, and personalize its services, “not only focusing on providing telco services but also providing services in other verticals such as fintech, education, health, etc.”

Guerra underscored the significance of endpoint protection within their strategic framework, emphasizing a holistic approach fortified by policies and frameworks like The Financial Consumer Protection Policy. With Vodafone Oman's complete digitalization, mirroring the country's vision, she highlighted the necessity of public-private partnerships to surmount expansion challenges.

For instance, at COMEX, the unveiling of the best app exemplified government support for entities, particularly in aiding SMEs. “This facilitation from the government has been absolutely pivotal in creating the conditions to the results that you see today in Oman,” stated Guerra.

Projecting Vodafone’s cybersecurity posture, Guerra said, “From an end-point protection, we are fundamentally able to take care of everything and it offers visibility over everything happening on our server.”

Guerra elaborated on a specific use case within Vodafone Oman involving decoys, enabling them to simulate scenarios to deter potential threats. She emphasized, "We are protecting ourselves and our customers. The more of these technologies we implement, the better we assess the risks." Their comprehensive approach extends to overseeing servers, laptops, and soon, even mobile phones, ensuring thorough vigilance across all fronts. She referred to the Vodafone application as a ubiquitous tool for all things digital.

“Having this kind of technologies have been quite important in protecting not only ourselves, but, by default, protecting our customers,” said Guerra.

“We are also participating in a number of forums and collaborations on the cybersecurity front along with the advancement in emerging technologies, including AI and automation,” she concluded.

Leveraging Partners to Accelerate Digital Transformation and Oman’s Vision 2040

Discussing the environment of partnership between telecoms with the third parties in Oman, the conversation explored the expectations and challenges revolving around the importance of accelerators and partnership.

Al Abdulsalam highlighted the competitive telco market environment, emphasizing the industry's fundamental need to expand its customer base. He underscored the importance of leveraging technologies and collaborating with third parties to transition from a client-based model to a value-centric one.

Al Abdulsalam outlined the significant role of key players like BeyondOne and the influence of markets such as KSA and LATAM, which collectively create a digital ecosystem fostering synergy. Addressing the challenge of achieving Vision 2024 entails considering middle-class wages and education levels when developing product offerings. He emphasized the necessity of digital inclusion with a people-centric mindset. He emphasized their mission to establish a digital aggregator, with the telco serving as the foundation, supported by multiple verticals to cultivate a digital community. The overarching idea is to create a central hub and seamlessly integrate it into various markets.

“It's an ongoing process; we're learning as we go, but it's essential for us to collaborate with critical third-party partners in the market with the capabilities and specializations to allow us to move into growth areas and monetize our base,” he added.

Blixell pointed out that a global company like Ericsson, with its presence in 180 countries, is inspired by what happens in the rest of the world and places itself in a position to see how it can similarly implement its observations.

He said that the partnership in Oman is open and professional. “What gets discussed upon; is what gets implemented and executed.”

He mentioned that Ericsson’s big fintech contracts in Africa could be brought to Oman to add value to operators. Similarly, he said more value could be added through the health and agricultural sectors as well as through smart factories using 5G technology. He also noted a proof-of-concept (PoC) project with Google to accelerate efficient cloud-based operations, which would be a country-first for Oman.

“Oman will be the first country to showcase this [cloud-based operations] as it is at the forefront of technology and the country is listening closely to what can be done to implementing it.”

He further emphasized the potential benefits of a portal app-like structure for operators, citing companies like Porsche and Tesla as examples of those leveraging 5G technology. He underscored the importance of adhering to Vision 2040 as essential for the industry's future success. “Oman Vision 2040 is as important as a guiding star for Oman. It shows the involvement of the government in setting the path for the nation.”

Agreeing with Blixell’s point of view, Guerra said, “The government of Oman has taken a holistic approach to this, and this is absolutely important because they have created the framework, policies and conditions for digital environments to flourish. Vodafone Oman is already a result of the Vision 2040 as a third operator in the country with a 100 percent digital outlook.”

The discussion continued by highlighting the acceleration of digital ambitions to achieve sustainable growth in Oman, emphasizing the pivotal role of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in alignment with the frameworks of Vision 2040. This entails leveraging ICT as a strategic enabler to propel economic development, enhance social progress, and foster innovation in line with the long-term goals outlined in Vision 2040.

“FRiENDi Mobile Oman is partnering with various industry players to establish and leverage their services to help us build our verticals and integrate our services which are aligned with the Vision 2040 framework,” added Al Abdulsalam.

Adding to this, Quique emphasized that despite the hype surrounding emerging technologies, the telco industry must prioritize understanding and meeting customer needs. He highlighted the shift in customer interaction methods and stressed the importance of redefining go-to-market strategies accordingly. This adaptability is crucial for staying relevant and competitive in a rapidly evolving digital landscape.

Looking Ahead

As a wrap-up of the discussion, the panel shifted its narrative towards the future of the digital transformation journey in Oman.

Blixell shared his opinion that the next step of the journey entails fully exploring the capabilities of 5G, including enhanced mobile broadband, Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), mission-critical networks, and Internet of Things (IoT) applications enabled by ultra-low latency.

He cited NVIDIA's exploration of cloud gaming as an illustrative example and highlighted the potential opportunities presented by hyperscalers in this evolving landscape.“That's the next step; to really use the potential of 5G with standalone core and use the hyperscalers to host various devices in order to create more performance and more efficiencies.”

Guerra seconded this perspective, emphasizing the need for the development of 5G use cases, specifically IoT use cases, at a larger scale to continue the digitalization journey of Oman.

Al Abdulsalam underscored the importance of transitioning from a volume-centric model to a value-based centric model, emphasizing the application of multiple verticals and the enhancement of customer experience with a digital focus.

Vivas echoed the significance of innovating use cases and comprehending how to monetize verticals enabled by 5G, aligning with the insights shared by his fellow panelists. Additionally, he emphasized the necessity of establishing an IT infrastructure conducive to the flourishing of B2B2C use cases in the future. This infrastructure should be robust and adaptable to support the evolving landscape of ICT and IoT-driven solutions across the entire ecosystem.

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