Saturday, October 1, 2022

Ian Dench, CEO of Ooredoo Oman

Ian Dench

Telecom companies have played an integral role in keeping individuals/societies connected and informed amid COVID-19.

What were the technical and operational challenges faced by Ooredoo during the pandemic, and what solutions have provided people with reliable connectivity the most?

Our priority from the outset was threefold. First and foremost, the safety of our staff and within just a matter of days we moved everyone to working from home. Secondly, keeping our customers connected, ensuring network availability and fast internet connectivity for consumers and businesses – particularly as they too transitioned to working from home, being responsive to their urgent and immediate requests. Thirdly, supporting the government and authorities of Oman in whatever way needed or required, in particular the Health and Education Ministries, the Emergency Services and other institutions.

Almost overnight, people moved the majority of their work, studies, and lives to their homes, and there has been a much bigger reliance on the internet to keep people connected. Our ongoing heavy investment in our network meant that it was well equipped to cater to the increased data demands that this situation brought. 

Our digital transformation efforts have also paid off. We had to shut all of our stores overnight and our contact centre staff had to work from home, which naturally produced some challenges. However, we were able to keep all services fully operational with access to our contact centre, our app, eShop, and other digital channels.

What operational/organizational changes were implemented by Ooredoo during the pandemic? Are there any emerging trends in telecom that you may want to adopt as a service and/or utilize for corporate purposes? (I.e. remote employment, telehealth, AI systems etc.,)

Through our award-winning app, customers are able to pay bills, top up, subscribe to plans, seek help and much more and over the course of the lockdown, we added numerous new digital services, such as being able to update ID through the app, ordering home internet and even raising and tracking trouble tickets/complaints. Communication through social media also increased significantly, in particular, WhatsApp, where our customers can place orders and raise queries. We’ve also added multiple languages to WhatsApp to make it easier for more of our customers to contact us.

Our eShop has evolved significantly over this recent period, providing (in Arabic and English) multiple services with home delivery anywhere in the Sultanate.

We also upgraded services available to business customers through our dedicated B2B digital channels and business customers could stay in contact with their account managers.

Even though we have now re-opened our stores, we continue to provide convenient digital services, as well as over-the-counter services as before. And our contact centre is fully operational with the vast majority of people still working from home.

We launched a number of offers, discounts and freebies for our customers during the lockdown period, including free calls, extra data, faster speeds, and plenty of free add-ons. We are also providing free access to educational websites.

For businesses, we increased our bandwidth speeds to ensure employees could work from home effectively and efficiently. We also offered unlimited calls, data packages, extra speeds and much more, all of which can be accessed through the enhanced B2B app or through account managers, to make working from home easier.

Oman’s digital transformation agenda was already well on-track, but the pandemic accelerated it. The transformation that has been made under such unprecedented circumstances has been remarkable, and thanks to our resilience and adaptability, we have for the most part been able to continue our operations and serve our customers, under vastly different and unusual times.

More than ever, people have realised how much more convenient it is to do things digitally and how much value it adds to their lives and it’s unlikely they’ll want to go back. We want to continue the positive developments that have been made throughout the pandemic and use them as building blocks for a post-COVID world. That means not only strengthening our commitment to enriching our customers’ digital lives, but contributing to the economic and social prosperity of Oman, as together we strive to overcome the impacts of the pandemic and face the future with confidence.

You have recently been selected by EduFair as the official telecom partner for the virtual exhibition for Higher Education Institutes. What is the importance of participating in such endeavors?

We’re pleased to have this opportunity once again to show practical support for education as well as showcasing the many Ooredoo Business products and services that can support education and related businesses.

Supporting education is a key focus for us as part of our corporate social responsibility strategy and we believe it’s our collective responsibility to nurture the next generation of leaders. This has been supported by various initiatives, long-term educational projects and training programs, through boosting educational opportunities and incubating digital entrepreneurship

Since the pandemic, as mentioned above, we have enabled free access to educational websites and online communication applications as part of a collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), to support students’ educational needs in light of schools closing down.

Working together with government organisations and private institutions, we are helping to nurture and develop many of tomorrow’s leaders and entrepreneurs and thus support Oman’s economy.

Furthermore, it is increasingly clear that online education will become a permanent component of all education in the years ahead and high-speed internet connectivity at home, and at educational institutions, is absolutely vital. With our significant investments in Fibre, 4G and 5G technologies, we are geared towards supporting this development in Oman.

You have been named by Forbes as one of the top-ranking companies in the region. What strategic steps have you adopted to get ahead of the competition?

This latest accolade reflects the Group’s phenomenal growth and vision. Our teams around the world are working to enable and enrich the digital lives of the communities we serve by providing much needed relief measures, innovative solutions, awesome digital services and great connectivity.

The Ooredoo Group is on a mission to empower customers across our global footprint to access and enjoy the best of the Internet in a way that is personal and unique to them. We continue to invest in our networks to ensure seamless connectivity that caters to our customers’ growing digital needs. The Group is working as a real digital enabler across its markets, with the aspiration of helping people simplify their lives and enjoy exciting and rewarding digital experiences.

How will your services benefit from 5G deployment/implementation? You have already opened pre-registration for 5G at home, what are the advantages of 5G technology?

The rollout of 5G marks a significant milestone in the Sultanate’s digital transformation journey, offering significantly higher network speeds with almost zero delay, which means faster downloads and uploads, better gaming experiences and super slick HDTV streaming. We have been gearing up for 5G for some time, upgrading the backbone connectivity to cater to the faster speeds and increased data traffic. Our 5G Home Internet service is now available in 88 locations in Muscat, Al Batinah, Al Dakhliyah, Al Wusta, Al Sharkiyah and Dhofar.  This new service offers consumers speeds of up to 100 Mbps.

However, the big promise of 5G comes with the low latency and the range of industrial applications it can benefit. It’s not just about self-drive cars and flying taxis, but how everyday things can be automated. For example, in the oil and gas industry, they may utilise drones to monitor wells and pipelines, as well as the automation of thousands of sensors.

There are also IoT solutions, such as smart metering, which we have already launched on existing technology in collaboration with the National Electricity & Energy Centre for the Public Authority for Water (Diam). In fact, this was the first-of-its-kind smart metering in Oman, which eliminates the challenges faced by utility providers when collecting meter readings, particularly in isolated residential locations.

The possibilities created by the technology will impact almost every aspect of our lives, all businesses government, healthcare, education, industry and the country is ready for it. We are excited to be offering our customers this transformative technology and taking their internet usage, and lives, to a whole new level.

You have entered into an agreement with the Ministry of Education to develop a new online education platform for Oman, what are some of the plans of this new agreement?

We’re very pleased to have signed this agreement with the Ministry of Education, as part of our CSR activities for Oman, and to be playing a role in Oman’s digital transformation while helping students reach their full potential in their educational journey.

This initiative is intended to address the challenges presented by COVID-19, ensuring that education is not disrupted moving forward. Linked to Oman’s Educational Portal, the platform will create virtual classrooms for students to learn from a distance across the country as well as enable discussion forums for teachers and administrators to share best practices and monitor growth and development in line with international indexes.

The platform will include the latest educational features and tools such as an e-library. User friendly and efficient, it will also ensure students interact easily with teachers, enjoy access to learning material, have their questions and queries answered, all the while keeping track of their progress. What’s even more, the e-learning platform will be accessible on mobiles and tablets through a dedicated App. It will also enable for additional material to be uploaded to aid distant learning as well as generate reports pertaining to the services available. Making it interactive, teachers will be able to host seminars, present projects and exchange ideas and perspectives that are beneficial to students.

How do ICT solutions address energy sustainability in mega cities? How can you implement ICT technology for security to ensure customers are given the protection and privacy they need?

ICT-based mega cities are able to leverage technology to enrich the lives of their populations, improve public services, transport, traffic flows, power, water supply, waste management, security and more.  They are well known not just for the quality of life of their inhabitants but also for their ability to attract businesses and investment.

Through the Digital Oman Strategy, Oman is working on harnessing the full potential of ICT and building on the sector as part of its bid to widen its economic prospects. Moreover, the implementation of new technologies as part of the Information Technology Authority’s vision of creating a Knowledge Based Society is facilitating the successful integration of new services in our homes, places of work, and throughout the education system. These steps are creating the foundations for future smart city initiatives in the Sultanate.  

When it comes to security, protecting employees and client data should be a top priority and making sure systems are resilient, secure and redundant will be just as important — if not more important — than new features.

How is sustainability driving growth in the telecoms industry? Do you a have a Green strategy in place?

As major consumers of energy to power our network, we are continually looking to new green technologies to reduce cost and improve sustainability. We deploy Solar Energy within our network where it makes economical and commercial sense. We also use special solutions to reduce the fuel consumption for generators in a number of sites, resulting in less pollution.

Our HSE department makes sure we are as environmentally friendly as is possible on a corporate level. They are responsible for our company recycling programme, overseeing our responsible energy consumption, ensuring office efficiency by saving paper and many more activities. They also work to ensure our employees enjoy a healthy work environment.

We do emphasise the importance of corporate and personal environmental responsibility and stewardship in all our activities. We focus on empowering our staff to play an active role in the preservation and conservation of Oman’s environment and to give a helping hand to communities. This includes holding volunteer-based events like our regular beach clean-up events and we have more activities in the pipeline.

As an organization, how committed are you to social responsibility? Tell us about your more recent CSR initiatives?

Corporate Social Responsibility has remained a mainstay of Ooredoo’s promise to enrich people’s lives. The company’s CSR programme, known as Ooredoo Goodwill, has grown to encompass all areas of the community, social development, education and empowerment.

Enabling budding entrepreneurs to prosper from the internet, our Springboard program (for women) and Spring Forward program (for both men and women), champion digital entrepreneurship and help young Omani’s to get their digital businesses off the ground, whether social media, online or app-based. Last year, we awarded teams from our Springboard and Spring Forward programs a start-up budget for the first time, as we placed a greater emphasis on education and supporting Oman’s economy by helping to develop and equip Oman’s future leaders and small business owners. 

Our annual Goodwill Journey, which celebrates its 16th anniversary this year, focuses on fostering women’s empowerment, education and self-sufficiency, as well as promoting the sustainable development of communities across the country. Some of last year’s activities included popening two new women’s incubators, taking the total to 13.

In partnership with the Ministry of Social Development, our Goodwill volunteers launched a carpentry room, computer lab and sensory room at The Al-Wafa Rehabilitation Centre for Disabled Children in Al Amerat. Three more sensory rooms in Al Khaboura, Nizwa and Ibra were also set up during the year, as well as the design and implementation of two ‘Digital Entertainment Rooms’ for the Paediatric Cancer and Paediatric Surgery rooms at the Royal Hospital.

Making good on our promise to promote education, we continued to update and enhance our popular Digital Tutorial App. For the first time in the Sultanate, Ooredoo is also preparing activity files for students in kindergarten and pre-school, which include video clips to teach the alphabet in Arabic and English, mathematics and science, in addition to exercises and educational activities from the curricula of a number of Arab and Gulf countries.

Along the same lines, the team donated digital devices to the Abu Hamza Al Shari School in Sohar, the Al Noor Association for the Blind in Ad Dhahirah and to less fortunate families in Masirah. We also visited hospitals in Sohar, building an outdoor playground, and in Duqm where they distributed medical beds to enhance the standard of care. Equipment was also donated to the Oman Association for the Disabled in Al Buraimi and the Omani Bahjah Orphan Society in Salalah, with whom a two-year contract was signed to support the ‘Saturday Market’ in Dhofar. The weekly event provides the families of the association with a unique platform to bolster their income and showcase their talents.

When COVID-19 hit, our priorities changed and we were able to mobilise quickly to redirect our efforts and support to initiatives that helped the nationwide fight to stop the virus’ spread and mitigate its wider impacts. Since March, we have donated various medical testing supplies and equipment to a number of hospitals across Oman, have provided free data to returning students contained in quarantine and also whitelisted educational websites.

For us at Ooredoo, our core values – caring, connecting, challenging – are not simply a statement, they are something we live by, and translate into action every day, every month, every year.