Undoubtedly, the global economic challenges caused by the onset of COVID-19 created an entirely unprecedented situation for the telecommunications industry. Movement restrictions, phenomenal increases in demand for data and connectivity and unavoidable financial constraints irrevocably altered the landscape, and players were forced to come up with ever more creative ways in which to manage their operations and continue to perform for both their customers and their companies. This was no different in our markets.
At Ooredoo, strategic investments and planning in the years preceding the pandemic meant our networks could cope with the huge increase in demand for data, and the demand for fast, reliable networks to support the communities where we operate and keep economies running.
Our response to the pandemic situation and our robust strategy enabled Ooredoo to report solid operational and financial performance. Evidence of our resilience is seen in the recent successful pricing of our $1bn bond issuance, reflecting investors’ confidence in the strength and stability of our balance sheet as well as our strategy to deliver new and innovative solutions to our customers by leveraging world-class technology and infrastructure.
Our customers share this confidence – we increased our customer base by three percent to 121 million across our global footprint in 2020 – as do international benchmarking consultancies, with Brand Finance naming Ooredoo a Top 40 Telecom Brand in 2021.
Response to the pandemic
Thanks to our balanced portfolio of assets and clear focus on digital services, we were able to mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic and maintain stability. We managed to keep our operations resilient and deliver a solid performance throughout 2020, during the height of the pandemic and with the resulting economic turbulence spreading across the globe. Moving into the first quarter of 2021, Ooredoo Group continued to deliver a robust set of results despite continuing challenging market conditions.
The company remained focused on its digital transformation agenda, which has enabled us to create value for our customers by offering a seamless and convenient user experience, and to optimise our cost base by streamlining and automating processes. Consequently, our EBITDA margin improved to 45 percent in Q1 2021 compared to 41 percent for the same period last year. A history of investing heavily in network development and expansion paid off when we found ourselves ready and able to hit the ground running as soon as the scale and impact of the pandemic became apparent.
Engineers worked around the clock to upgrade networks where necessary, and ensure the reliability of our networks for the millions of video calls taking place every minute around the world, and networks were optimised to ensure educational establishments could continue to provide lessons to the many students learning at home.
Even entertainment was not missed. Systems were boosted to handle the increased demand for online gaming, with ping times shortened to ensure optimum gaming experiences, and extra channels were added to TV packages. From an operations perspective, we rapidly rolled out a working-from-home protocol to ensure continuity of service for our customers. Within a matter of hours of lockdowns being announced, our workforces from all areas of operations including head offices and call centres were safely and effectively shifted to working from home. Our engineers and IT support teams managed this shift phenomenally, ensuring staff could continue to support customers in turn.
Initiatives to support communities
Ooredoo Qatar was recognised by an IPSOS poll as one of the top 10 companies in the country for its response to the pandemic, recognition that was mirrored across many of our operating companies. Our programmes of support for the communities in which we operate across our global footprint were comprehensive, including distribution of essentials such as masks and sanitisers, mass awareness campaigns via social media, leaflets and other means of communication and sanitisation of areas identified as particularly hard-hit by the virus.
Also, they included financial contributions to various aid initiatives and governments, and free data and minutes for frontline and key workers as well as more vulnerable members of the community. From a service perspective, we rolled out a comprehensive programme of measures to help communities adapt to the situation; faster speeds, free minutes, free educational entertainment and free money transfers.
We shifted the focus of our CSR strategy to support a wide variety of initiatives across all of our operating companies, aimed at helping communities manage, and recover from, the pandemic situation. We also signed major partnerships with content providers – Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV – to enhance home entertainment services and provided entirely digital mobile experiences via Ooredoo apps, such as the Ooredoo Money app, which offers a safe and convenient way to transfer money from a mobile phone.
We have a clear, comprehensive strategy to take the Ooredoo Group to the next level in the coming years. This strategy will remain the same as we move into the post-pandemic ‘new normal’ and the ever more digital age.
We are making it easier for our customers to find, buy and use our products and services online so that we can attract and retain customers at a lower cost, driving value to our shareholders. We will build leading digital services and explore new, previously unaddressed areas to drive top-line growth, and implement digitalisation across the entire Ooredoo Group to be more efficient and agile. 5G and its myriad use cases will remain a key driver of our ongoing success as we adopt the latest technologies and continue our 5G rollout across our digital footprint. Beyond digital, our strategy rests on three more pillars; core, infrastructure and portfolio.
We managed to keep our operations resilient and deliver a solid performance throughout 2020
We will continue to accelerate the performance of our core business, investing in people, our networks and our services, to win in the marketplace and maximise return on our assets. We have recently made several new appointments to our C-suite, including several female leaders. We continue to work tirelessly to ensure our organisational culture enables a more innovative working environment, and we will continue to recruit, train and develop the next generation of talent from within the markets in which we operate.
We will work to be more efficient, flexible and asset-light, extracting optimal value from our infrastructure via network sharing and infrastructure deals. An example of this is our recent signing of a sale and leaseback agreement for more than 4,200 telecommunications towers in Indonesia, valued at approximately $750m. We expect this transaction to close in Q2.
Over the last few years we made a strong push to improve our customers’ journeys and experiences by digitising our core and leveraging analytics to personalise the customer experience and offerings, both online and offline. In our home country, Qatar, a national plan – Qatar National Vision 2030 – includes a goal of complete digitalisation, with the country aiming to be the world’s first truly smart nation.
This digitalisation encompasses every facet of our operations, from customer service to back-end support and logistics. We want to enable our customers to be able to engage with us digitally in the way that best suits them. Accordingly, we are continuing to invest significantly in enhancing our digital customer experience not just in Qatar but across the Ooredoo Group and its operating companies.
Focus on 5G
As data market leaders, data now constitutes over 50 percent of revenue, so we expect a continued focus on 5G, enabling customers to access our incredible 5G networks that we continue to roll out across the Ooredoo Group global footprint. To date, Ooredoo has upgraded more than 90 percent of outdoor macro sites with 5G in Qatar, covering over 90 percent of the population. We have also launched 5G networks in Kuwait, Oman and the Maldives, and are also preparing to implement 5G in Indonesia, where we have already trialled a number of 5G use cases.
We are also enabling and increasing investments in the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence via our 5G networks, which provide the ultra-high speeds and very low latency required for such connections and enhancements. Our incredible 5G network and its myriad use cases will remain a key driver of the company’s ongoing success as we adopt the latest technologies, and we will therefore continue to strengthen our partnerships with the world’s leading technology providers, to further consolidate our offering to our customers.
We believe that this will allow us to deliver on our vision to enrich people’s digital lives, and bring the benefits of the latest technology to our customers across our vast and diverse global footprint.