By Ronan Shields
Lebanon's telecoms network has seen great change in recent years as it experiences the benefits of modernisation following the traumas of war. Ronan Shields speaks to Rula Abu Daher, the chief technical officer of the second of Lebanon's two mobile operators, MTC Touch, about delivering service even in some of the darkest periods of the country's history.
As one of the two mobile licensees in the Lebanese telecoms market, MTC Touch, a wholly owned subsidiary of the MTC Group, has built a body of expertise in maintaining the day-to-day management of network operations in conflict stricken areas.
The operator successfully bid for a four-year contract granted by the Lebanese Ministry of Telecommunications in November 2004 to manage part of the country's telecoms infrastructure on a ‘build-operate-transfer' basis, claiming the networks lacked proper maintenance in the four years prior to MTC Touch's involvement. MTC Touch took over management of the GSM network from LibanCell, which was backed by influential members of Lebanon's political establishment and is now a part of the Comium Group.
MTC Touch chief technical officer Rula Abu Daher has held the position since June 2005 and leads and manages the operator's technical department, a position from which she oversees the operations, maintenance and planning of the expansion of the GSM network. Daher is also charged with exploring and preparing the company's infrastructure to accommodate new technologies and services. "Our initial activities, back in late 2004 and early 2005, centred around securing an adequate budget to profile the market needs, formulate an execution strategy and to finally implement the programme through the Ministry of Communications," recalls Daher.
"As you can imagine this required the purchasing, installation and maintenance of a lot of equipment in order for us operate a network capable of handling the increase in end-user demand. Our primary target has been to establish and maintain a network infrastructure that will adequately service the needs of the market," she adds.
Daher also explains that in addition, the operator also had to look at the requirements of integrating new data and networking platforms into the system and MTC Touch's operations became so successful that by mid-2006 the cellco was able to provide end-users with new data services such as MTC Touch roaming and Blackberry.
MTC Touch counted 560,000 subscribers at the end of 2006, representing a market share of approximately 50%. Growth in subscriber numbers at the operator during the course of 2006 represented a rate of 10%. Mobile penetration in Lebanon stood at just under 30% at the end of 2006.
Not many female chief technical officers exist at telecoms operators in the region - or across the globe for that matter - and Daher relishes the challenges the position presents her. "During the aggression on Lebanon in July last year, Daher guided her team and demonstrated leadership under crisis," comments MTC Touch general manager. Mohammad Shabib.
Daher's efforts were recognised last month in Dubai at the Middle East Businesswomen and Leaders Achievement Awards, where she was named ‘Middle East Woman of the Year' within the ICT sector.
Lebanon's socio-political environment heightens the challenges faced by any commercial entity in the country, and given the strategic significance of communications networks; Daher's responsibilities in maintaining coverage are further amplified. "The 2006 war, which was entirely unexpected, dealt a major blow to our efforts in the market," she states. "Some of MTC Touch's facilities were specifically targeted during bombing raids on Lebanon and the effect of this was at one stage 25% of our network capabilities were incapacitated during the height of the conflict."
The resulting communication difficulties hit the bulk of Lebanon's key industries, and Daher describes MTC Touch's endeavours during this time as being motivated as much by the national need as they were by commercial interests. "We were acutely aware that one phone call could potentially save a life," she muses.
"As a team leader I did not insist that staff come in over this period as I did not want to unnecessarily compromise the safety of my team but most of them responded positively," Daher retorts.
The extent of the damage stretched the length and breadth of Lebanon with many major MTC Touch hub sites being directly targeted and at one stage "literally hundreds" of sites were down simultaneously across the north and south of the country.
MTC Touch's first priority was to formulate a strategy for the emergency response team to implement on-the-spot reparatory work in affected areas, a process that involved a dynamic approach. And the challenges facing the company have not relented since the end of the conflict as the ongoing security situation and civil tensions create difficulties in operating in Lebanon.
"In the long term operating in the Lebanese market requires a versatile approach as it is often governed by the security situation," suggests Daher. "This approach involves cooperation with our competitor to circumvent the operational difficulties dictated by the ongoing security situation."
The Lebanese telecoms market, however, continues to attract regional and international investment interest.