Why being data-driven is a must to give customers what they deserve
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Etihad Etisalat Company offers fixed line, mobile and internet services in Saudi Arabia under the brand name Mobily. Its CTO, Alaa Malki, has worked at the company in a variety of network roles since 2005 – the year after the company was set up.
Like many telcos, Mobily has striven to become data-driven to emulate the success of digital native companies. However, while many failed because they focused on new technologies rather than the desired outcomes, this is not the case with Malki.
He states, “First you have to set a goal and from that goal, you can set the journey wherever you want, or multiple journeys, but you have to have at least one target goal. For us with mobile specifically, the goal was very clear:customer experience.
“We've been working on this for a long time now and we've been recognized by the [Saudi] regulator CITC in 2021 as the best customer experience operator, when it comes to mobile and fixed. The mobile has also been recognized by Ookla as the best experience…operators are sitting on a huge lake of data and if we could monetize this data, through improving customer experience, then our customers’ journeys, the output will be great.”
He adds, “Being data-driven is becoming a must. For example, today, Mobily has the largest IoT network in the Middle East, which is extremely complex. You cannot manage this huge IoT network of around 10 million smart meters in the legacy way, with an engineer who looks at dashboards and those kinds of things. We need to look differently at the whole subject…networks become more and more complex as we add layers, 3G, 4G, 5G and who knows what’s going to come next year? From all these kinds of transport and layers, you need to find a single source [of truth]. The way to do that is via a data-driven journey, where you can look at all angles.”
Three birds, one stone
He explains how, over time, the goals for Mobily’s data-driven efforts have evolved: “At the start, we were thinking about it more as maximizing efficiency – you can introduce more automation and use things in a more efficient way.” Malki’s change in thinking “turned on a very interesting fact: the more you automate things, the greater the efficiency, but you also improve customer experience.
“Usually when you cut costs for efficiency, it’s seen as not caring so much about customers. The interesting situation here is that if you focus on customers and become more efficient, you do a very good job. AI used to be [seen as] science fiction, but it is becoming a reality you can really depend on. We have multiple cases where we could monetize the network, reduce costs and improve the customer experience with just that one stone.”
The Hajj journey
Achieving multiple goals by being data driven was powerfully illustrated in 2022 by Mobily’s determination to give its customers the best possible experience during the Hajj. The Hajj is an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Muslims’ holiest city. All Muslims who are physically and financially able are obliged to perform the Hajj at least once.
This year the Hajj took place from the 7th to 12th of July. In April, the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that 1 million international and domestic pilgrims would be given permission to perform Hajj. Given that Mecca’s usual population is about 1.6 million, it is an immense challenge for Mobily to ensure the best possible service during this period.
Malki stresses, “It's not only important from a revenue point of view, it’s also a pleasure to provide the kind of program they experienced and that they deserve: connecting to family, live streaming from the locations and if they have an emergency, they need to make calls. For all these aspects they need data.”
He adds “I want to thank Ericsson for the support so that we could use this data-driven concept whereby we can do all kinds of changes and optimizations in what was a very limited time. Every minute counts when within two or three days you have millions of people moving from location to location. You need these parameters adjustments and load trafficking – and you need to do it per minute.
“That’s the beauty when they're using this open system to create algorithms so machines can start implementing in minutes, checking it and adjusting it by the minute. This mechanism can dramatically reduce the total cost. We did this with Ericsson this year as proof of concept and the outcome was very good, showing a major improvement for our main goal: better customer experience achieved with minimal resources. I am sure if we scale up this, it will definitely improve the [overall] TCO.”
Already, he explains, “We have wonderful examples where we are using automation for ticketing on the network, to detect a ticket or send it to the technicians who go to locations. It’s all automated. No-one takes the ticket, writes it up and puts it here or there, so you reduce a huge amount of cost. You have information in the right place in a second, and it chooses the right teams in the right locations, because it can see who is the nearest with the right equipment. It’s all in the algorithm. If you manage to optimize and implement it correctly, you get fantastic customer experience.”
Going back to the Hajj, he says, “If we take all this data and analyze it, we can predict what's going to happen next year at certain locations – if this is a bottleneck street, or if there is a certain problem situation there. This information is very important for people in the field, to predict how they can do what. How they can evaluate their equipment, predict how much maintenance they need, to have a spare part and other factors.”
Achieving multiple goals is helped by “another big change,” he says, in “that network and IT are becoming as one session and from there, you can do magic…moving to cloudification, going to open architectures, using off-the-shelf products, and so on. You can even expand network sites quite fast; you can develop other things quite fast, but not in a legacy way. Agility is becoming an important factor.”
As networks evolve, it can be difficult to gauge or predict the total cost of ownership (TCO) although it is often a crucial element of the business case for new operational and business models.
“You need to start building it as layers,” Malki says. “First, you build the right digital infrastructure then you can build all kinds of smart and intelligent operations on top of it, so you build digital customer engagement. You have a customer-centric system and you can derive new services, whether they are digital services or upscaling a service – you name it, but in my view, it has to come in that sequence. It needs to be systematic.”
What should TCO cover? “This is a very important question,” Malki states. “It's very hard in our industry to keep investing without [realizing] all the beautiful things we expected. There are difficulties with this in 5G today. We have the fixed wireless, but there are tons of other, promising things – more automation, private networks and network as a service – that we don't have yet, or not in an easily scalable way that could generate major revenue. There are a lot of trials, but I don't see it as a goldmine.”
In Malki’s view, this unpredictability and lag in expectations makes “being data-driven very important” because it aids agility, efficiency and preparedness for whatever happens. He points out the industry expected video calls to become mainstream then failed to foresee the explosion of social media on 4G which resulted in unimagined traffic growth. He says, “Now, with 5G, we are expanding the pipeline and creating better customer experience, but we are still looking for killer applications. It should not scare us. I have been in this industry for 22 years and seen this repetitive [pattern]”.
Readiness is all
Currently, 10 to 15 percent of Mobily’s mobile traffic is 5G, but the proportion is growing rapidly but, he cautions, “The network needs time: you cannot do this [transition to new services] in six months or a year, so you need to start this investment and experience now to enjoy the future”.
Malki is not moved by hype about the metaverse and various kinds of ‘reality’, but advises, “Let's look from a different perspective. I recently saw the military is starting to use augmented reality-type technology to ease [the soldier’s] job on the field – militaries are often the first adopters”. GPS is a good example: “No-one can live without today; a lot of industries depend on it. Technologies require time. The technology is ready now, but perhaps not for end users – maybe they don't have the best experience [yet] with this kind of gadget,” he adds.
He concludes, “TCO is an extremely critical factor. All operators need to invest in these new technologies. We see a lot of cases where people hesitate and wait. These things need investment now with a focus on customer experience and new devices, and things that will enlighten us in future. A data-driven transformation journey is a must for all operators… you need to adopt new technologies to reduce the complexity and improve your total cost.”
Find out more about our data-driven operations blog series
Watch on-demand our latest webinar (with TDC, Omdia and Ericsson experts): Data-driven Operations: Does it really pay off? - FutureNet World
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