Ali Amiri, Etisalat: A global hub in the Gulf

26 March 2014 | Kavit Majithia


Ali Amiri, EVP wholesale and carrier services at Etisalat, talks to Capacity about UAE’s increasing presence as a technology hub for the Middle East.

A spectacular firework display from the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, was Dubai’s way of announcing that the UAE had been chosen to host the World Expo trade convention in 2020.

The convention – which is held every five years – is to be held in the Middle East for the first time and brings together representatives from hundreds of countries, showcasing the latest developments in technology and architecture.

Beating off competition from Brazil, Turkey and Russia, Dubai has promised to astonish the world with the event. Ali Amiri, EVP carrier and wholesale services at Etisalat, believes the decision to award the highly prestigious event to the UAE represents the country’s continuous growth in the technology sector.

“For the UAE, the exciting news was certainly the Expo 2020 announcement, as well as the Smart Government initiatives that will have a lot of focus on delivering government e-services via mobile,” he tells Capacity. “UAE is now home to the highest level of smartphone penetration in the world, and the rise of smartphone adoption, along with the widespread deployment of mobile broadband networks, has led to an explosion of mobile data services.”

Etisalat’s wholesale head further highlights the fact that the Middle East as a whole is growing its broadband penetration at an unprecedented rate, and is now “surpassing its western counterparts”, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia reaching 55% and 45% respectively.

“We invest heavily in the future and adapt quickly to changing business conditions to seize opportunity. Our strength is in how quickly we adapt,” says Amiri.

With the Expo only six years away, Amiri believes the country’s focus is now on M2M growth. With the connectivity of devices and businesses at the consumer and enterprise levels a must, he urges the industry to increase the availability and quality of broadband connectivity.

“The mobile ecosystem will be expanded to accommodate the growing demand for high-bandwidth applications and services, such as video and gaming, with M2M continuing to gain momentum. The UAE, in 2014, will focus on ‘connected world, connected things’,” he explains.

SmartHub gets smarter
At Capacity Middle East 2014, Etisalat – the UAE’s largest carrier – made significant progress with its SmartHub facility, announcing four new partnerships for the wholesale infrastructure platform. The company has struck deals with high-profile global carriers, including Bharti Airtel in India, Telekom Malaysia, Aicent and a deal with Safaricom in Kenya to enable the carriers to gain access to the Middle East and establish a presence in the region.

The new partners are additions to SmartHub’s growing portfolio of global carriers and technology companies connecting into the facility, which also includes AMS-IX, Equinix, PCCW Global, SAP, China Telecom, Tata Communications, Limelight Networks, Level 3 and Microsoft, to name a few.

“We are proud to have launched the SmartHub IX and SmartHub IPX platforms, which are now recognised as major game-changers for the regional wholesale landscape,” says Amiri. “Last year, SmartHub came into its own as the most significant regional hub for a wide range of services. By providing access to the Middle East, we were also able to become the region’s largest hosted content delivery network (CDN).”

Amiri tells Capacity that the growth and success of SmartHub, which launched last year, is another indication that the lines between different types of service providers continues to blend, with traditional telecoms operators having to integrate with ICT business solutions.

“The role of telecoms in the IT-telecoms convergence space will change from foe to friend,” he says. “Our role as a telecoms company has changed from being a plain voice and data provider to a fully fledged connectivity partner for customers.”

With this strategy in mind, and in combination with SmartHub, Etisalat has also targeted growth in cloud services. Amiri believes cloud will emerge as a dominant technology in the Middle East, and that business partners with robust and scalable regional and domestic networks like Etisalat will play a critical role in this development.

“Traditional service providers like Etisalat are taking on cloud in competition with the likes of Amazon. The international wholesale model is unique, however, as our competitors in one field can be our partners in another,” he explains.

The company launched its Cloud Compute platform last year, and now serves as a partner to major cloud providers in the market, as well as offering its own service.

Amiri says Etisalat realised the long-term benefits and implications of cloud early, and specifically targets its offering to SMBs and enterprise customers, operating predominantly as an infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) “pay as you go” model.

“We believe that such a model reduces IT costs by up to 60% and time to market by up to 90%,” he says. “Hosted at Etisalat UAE’s Jebel Ali data centre, it offers easy access to infrastructure, the ability to scale up or down rapidly based on demand, and faster time to market than a conventional hosting service.”

Advancing LTE
Following recent agreements with leading vendors Huawei and Alcatel-Lucent, signed recently, Etisalat has also showcased its intentions to advance its LTE offering and develop its mobile network. With 4G in the Middle East forecast to reach approximately 42.6 million connections by 2017, partnerships with vendors and investment in mobile are going to be increasingly relevant, according to Amiri.

Etisalat rolled out the region’s first 4G LTE network, covering 85% of the UAE’s populated area in 2013, and LTE “is central to the growth strategies of Middle East operators”, Amiri says.

“With LTE continuing to gain strategic prominence, operators are evaluating the best approaches to offer the service. By launching and offering LTE-enabled smartphones, we have given the momentum for the service to develop further, with more affordable price plans,” he tells Capacity.

Amiri estimates that the retail mobile market will be worth a mammoth $96 billion by 2017, and claims that LTE-A “will prove a critical solution for addressing the anticipated increase in speeds of mobile data”.

“The benefits of LTE-A are more than just speed, as it supports connectivity by packing more speed into the same amount of spectrum and allowing more people to access the network at once,” he adds.



Developing Dubai
The Dubai Smart Government initiative, announced at the beginning of this year – which aims to integrate technology to improve the daily lives of residents – also largely complements Etisalat’s aims for the UAE and the Middle East as a whole.

Aiming to establish Dubai as a smart city by 2021, the initiative is designed to incorporate the capabilities of social, information, cloud and mobile technologies.

“The above forces have worked together to offer new ways to permanently improve how governments serve and interact with the needs and expectations of the public,” says Amiri.

As the UAE continues to grow as a connectivity hub for the Middle East, Amiri says he is excited by the fact there are more international companies establishing a presence in the region.

“2014 is a big year, because we are seeing more and bigger global telecom and internet players focussing on the region, and they recognise Etisalat as a partner to enable this success,” he suggests.