School of Change

Amr Eid, CEO of GBI on how the company has reinvented its business model, restructured its networks and diversified its portfolio to position itself as a global service provider.
 Five years ago, in terms of core business, wholesale contributed 100%. However, today it constitutes less than 75% of GBI’s business.
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Five years ago, in terms of core business, wholesale contributed 100%. However, today it constitutes less than 75% of GBI’s business.

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GBI has come a long way after having started its journey as part of the global fibre optic cable ecosystem that aimed to enhance the connectivity landscape in the capacity-hungry Middle East region while connecting it to the rest of the world. Fast forward to today, GBI owns and operates a multilayer and multisystem network that bridges the East to the West through the Middle East. Network transformation has turned the company into a full-fledged global service provider, says GBI CEO Amr Eid.

With the merger between IT and telecoms, ICT industry has become an opportunity hotspot and GBI’s evolution further capitalises on this trend. The company has not just reinvented its business model, it has also restructured its networks and invested in new technologies to transform from a cable company to an agile multi-pronged service provider.

“We realised that the best thing is to keep changing instead of waiting for the market to change,” says Eid. He highlights how the company has even allocated a full time resource to make sure the company stays atop the various disruptive technologies making foray into the market regionally as well as globally. “If we don't disrupt, someone else will.”

Currently, one of the biggest focus areas for the company is software defined networking. “It took us six months from idea to implementation to gaining customers to delivering customers. With a company of 88 people, we have customers all the way from SMBs to enterprises to government agencies,” Eid says. “In the software defined network space, we carry the largest market share in EMEA customers which is in tens of millions of dollars of business using our software defined platform to connect and deliver services.”

The company has been investing significantly in software defined WAN, software defined networking at large, and also in more and more platforms to enable it to sell more virtual or cloud services. “Technology vendors are citing us as a successful use case of an operator that managed to win so many customers in just six months by using software defined networking,” adds Eid.

While disruptive technologies have been compelling companies to transform and change, one thing which usually acts as a dampener is the slow pace of cultural and corporate transformation. However, with less than 100 employees, GBI has been operating with an entrepreneurial and global mindset instead of trying to be just another cable provider. Eid says: “People don’t usually leave GBI and when they do and move to much larger organisations, they always want to come back. And that’s because of the way we work and stimulate the employees. Everyone works with a feeling that they are making an impact, that they are making things happen.”

Instead of hiring too many people, the company is focused on hiring the right resources. Eid tells CommsMEA how the company doesn’t shy away from hiring young people fresh out of universities. “Two years ago we hired a group of youngsters for a short period. Following on few brainstorming sessions, they came up with three services that were later integrated into the portfolios of several regional incumbent operators and have helped GBI to yield revenues of over $5 million over the past two years,” Eid says. One of the innovations that came out of this exercise was accelerated internet for gaming.

The company is a keen believer in the power of constant change and innovation. While today GBI is offering software defined networking, tomorrow it wouldn’t be a surprise if they start amalgamating and compiling several cloud services to provide to the customers using a technology agnostic approach. However, Eid clarifies that the company is not trying to compete with international cloud providers, its strategy is to rather act as a cloud and content enabler by adopting a platform and partnership mediated approach.

Over the past one year, 20% of the investments by GBI’s shareholders have managed to yield 80% of the revenues. According to Eid, over the next 18 months, with the alignment of the shareholders, 50% of what was spent in GBI right from inception is going to be spent again. “And this is going to be utilised for acquisition of hundreds of thousands of customers. And we will be doing that in collaboration with the incumbent operators.”

As of today, several incumbent operators in the region have white labelled GBI’s services in order to diversify their portfolio aiming for newer revenue streams. “We have proved that we are friends not foes to the operators. We enable better profitability and a bigger portfolio of products for them because we own the network, are agile, and can change our product portfolio very fast,” says Eid.

Five years ago, in terms of core business, wholesale contributed 100%. However, today it constitutes less than 75% of GBI’s business. Starting with zero enterprise customers back then, thanks to strategic collaborations with the region’s incumbent operators, today more than 25% of GBI’s business comes from enterprises. Eid says. In addition to that, the company also serves as Express Route Partner for Microsoft. Are there plans in the near future for GBI to sell services directly to the enterprise and SMB customers? “If and when regulations allow and service doesn’t conflict with any regulated telecom service, we would love to go the direct route too,” Eid remarks.

Eid puts forth an interesting observation that every USP has an expiry date, and hence, irrespective of laws and regulations that protect a company, in the absence of innovation, no service provider can thrive in the changing dynamics. We are currently in an innovation economy; the ground rules are simple- innovate and flourish or be complacent and perish. Being a nimble player, GBI is focused on innovating and bringing new services that incumbent operators can integrate into their portfolio.

The current highlights for the company are software defined technologies, open networking, and the concept of neutral connectivity. “And we hope that incumbents will stop trying to control international operators from facilitating new innovative services,” says Eid. GBI has been partnering with strategic players worldwide to position itself as a stronger global service provider.

Airtel and GBI have entered into a strategic agreement to unlock the capacity on GBI’s India-Middle East-Europe submarine cable system.  Under the agreement, Airtel will acquire the ownership of the India leg of GBI’s India-Middle East-Europe submarine cable. Airtel will also pick up a significant capacity on Middle East-Europe leg of GBI’s cable system. GBI’s submarine cable asset will complement Airtel’s existing global cable network viz. IMEWE, EIG, SMW4 and MENA and add significant long term bandwidth capacity, enabling it to serve the booming data demand across emerging markets like India and Africa.

In another interesting development last year, looking at the increasing popularity of social networking in the Middle East, GBI started to team up with social media platforms, content delivery networks and global cloud providers in the region. As the only operator to provide diverse routing from Europe to all the countries of the Gulf and the lowest latency route between Europe and India, the network design utilizes the latest technology, including 40G and 100G wavelengths, and offers resilient and safe technology to its customers.

In spite of all the positive development, challenges haven’t ceased to exist entirely either. While in several countries, GBI has managed to convince operators for a partnership model, in some other countries, outdated laws and regulations have been a hindrance. Moreover, uncertainty in the economy has been affecting the expenditure by large organisations in new initiatives. Another challenge has been the fact that at times, enterprises are finding it hard to keep pace with the disruption in technology field. Nevertheless, GBI is busy bringing innovation to the market. It’s currently working on getting a special cybersecurity vertical in place. The practice is expected to go live by the end of summer, 2018, and will primarily target security practices around the services offered by GBI.

“We realise that we’re not an incumbent operator but the market has changed. We have always believed that agility is one of the most important factors in the telecommunication industry,” says Eid. Almost 25% of the internet in the region is now routed through GBI either directly or indirectly. Catering to both enterprises and leisure users, GBI’s Internet Protocol (IP) services encompass a premium broadband solution, sold specifically to enterprises to ensure lower latency and minimal service disruption.

Its managed services enable businesses to fully connect on a global scale at reduced costs, with connections to the largest IP exchanges within Europe, alongside regional internet exchanges in the GCC. The company has also put in place a concept of liquid connectivity and dynamic bandwidths for enterprise customers and governments hence enabling them to put their opex to best use.

In a market growing at growth rates upto 10%, GBI continues to see exponential growth of up to 50% per year, according to Eid. Going forward, the company hopes to position itself at the forefront as a strong catalyst of the ICT evolution and be a true regional service provider ready to be a global service provider.

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