COVID-19 has impacted all aspects of society worldwide, especially following government-imposed lockdowns that have negatively affected the construction, real estate, and travel and tourism industries, among others. The telecommunications industry, however, has largely avoided these effects, as the need for a means of connecting other than in person has increased substantially. While businesses have invested in augmenting their network capacity to support remote working solutions, individuals have consumed more content via online platforms and taken to mobile banking more than they had before the pandemic.
Yet, the telecom industry hasn’t been completely shielded from the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, for instance, have faced various challenges, including a disruption of call center operations, regulator-imposed free data and calls, network congestion, and lower quality of service. The following explores the measures taken by four GCC operators in response to these challenges and in support of consumers during the pandemic.
Headquartered in Qatar and operating in Oman and Kuwait, among other countries, Ooredoo noticed a 3 percent decline in revenue in the first half of 2020 relative to the same period of the previous year. During this time, EBITDA and net profit also declined by 5 percent and 3 percent (to $225 million), respectively. Considering the turbulent economic conditions in not only the Middle East, but also worldwide, Ooredoo Chairman Sheikh Faisal Bin Thani Al Thani lauded these figures as a relative victory in July 2020. Moreover, he cited the company’s early investments in digital transformation as key to its resiliency.
In that regard, Ooredoo companies began offering network and data upgrades to their business clients at the outset of the pandemic. Ooredoo also helped these clients establish efficient remote working solutions and launched a relief effort to enhance payment flexibility for business clients in select countries. Its support of individual clients included donations and mobile data offerings to frontline workers. In March 2021, Ooredoo Kuwait announced it would provide three free months of data to customers who can prove they received the COVID-19 vaccine.
Saudi Telecom Company
With sales of $14.5 billion and a market value of $46.7 billion as of July 2020, Saudi Telecom Company (STC) ranks first among telecom operators in the Middle East. Founded in 1998, it has leveraged its position and economic stability to lead a number of initiatives to combat the spread of COVID-19. In June 2020, STC launched the Virtual Clinic and Tari digital initiatives. The former facilitates digital communication between physicians and patients, while the latter allows medical professionals to activate notifications in a more efficient manner. This followed news in April that STC dedicated $26.6 million to double operational capacity at its 22 health centers.
“These initiatives are part of the company’s efforts as a digital enabler and are in line with Saudi Vision 2030 to digitize the infrastructure of the health care sector and provide suitable services to facilitate and automate the work of our health care heroes so that we may overcome all challenges brought about by this crisis,” explained STC Senior VP of Enterprise Business Unit Riyadh Saeed Muawad.
STC hasn’t been without its challenges, however. The company signed a non-binding agreement to purchase a majority stake in Vodafone Egypt in January 2020, but extended the process in April and July due to logistical challenges associated with COVID-19.
The UAE-headquartered Etisalat was well positioned to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic given its significant network and infrastructural investments over the years. Regarded as “The Fastest Mobile Network Operator” in the world by Ookla Speedtest, the company orchestrated a comprehensive and coordinated response to the pandemic to ensure its business, government, and individual customers had reliable and sustained access to data services. Its programming allowed more than 1 million UAE students to access distance learning platforms free of charge, while it offered free mobile data to in excess of 12,000 students in households without Internet access.
Etisalat also allocated additional network resources to the country’s health care facilities and continues to offer discounted rates to health care workers and other essential service professionals through collaboration with the Frontline Heroes Office.
Bahrain’s largest telecom operator, Batelco was proactive in its approach to supporting customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company provided free unlimited data usage for all of its fixed Internet subscribers from March 19 to the end of May 2020. In April, it donated $9.2 million to the Royal Humanitarian Foundation’s There is Good in Us campaign to combat the spread of COVID-19 in Bahrain.
Understanding that many of its business customers haven’t been as fortunate as some of those in the telecom industry, Batelco announced in August that it would cover a portion of fixed Internet costs for 500 small- and medium-enterprise customers. Around the same time, the telecom operator announced that it was expanding its global network by 49 percent to meet increased data traffic demands.