If anyone still thinks of Cyprus as a remote island, tucked away in the eastern Mediterranean and with little going for it other than its ancient monuments, they should ask themselves why those monuments are there. Every civilisation in Europe and Asia Minor has wanted to grab Cyprus: the lesson of history is that its location has made it of key strategic importance, and that's why it has been something of a political football right up to 1960 when it gained its independence from Britain, joining the European Union in 2004. Since these events it has grown to become a favoured location for business, thanks to a high per-capita income and low tax regime, making it attractive to investors looking to take advantage of its growing service economy.
The rise of Epic mobile
But it's not just the increasing demand from business and domestic subscribers that has boosted the growth of the telecoms industry in Cyprus. It's geographic position close to the major economies of the Middle East, southern Europe and northern Africa mean that it is a natural hub, connected to all these markets by undersea communication. Areeba, the predecessor to Epic, was founded in 2003. It was acquired by South Africa's MTN in 2007 and in 2018 by Monaco Telecom, a part of the NJJ Group, and was rebranded as Epic Cyprus (Epic).
Since 2004, Yiannis Michaelides has been a key player in the company's development, and since 2017 he has been Epic's Chief Technical and Information Officer, building on its achievements to that date and its new direction thereafter. He is responsible for both IT and the Networks and has 100+ skilled engineers and technicians in his team. “We used to be predominantly a mobile operator, and were the first to introduce 3G, 3.5G, 4G and VoLTE in Cyprus. In 2020 we were ranked for Cyprus as “Best Mobile Network in Test” by umlaut, and “Fastest Mobile Network” by Ookla.”
Michaelides and his team started around three years ago the journey to become the #1 mobile network in Cyprus. They called it “The preferred network project”, a name allowing no misinterpretation about what this project was all about. This journey begun by putting a plan in place, to tackle with priorities all the weak points of the network, starting from excelling first in voice, through improvements in coverage with Umts900, through the rollout of several new sites and through the activation of HDvoice and VoLTE. Then, they planned how to become faster in data speeds, by improvements in the 4G indoor coverage, the use of lower spectrum bands, the refarming of more and more spectrum towards 4G and the addition of several 4G bands that would allow the extensive use of carrier aggregation in the network.
“In parallel, we needed a reliable and independent way to continuously monitor the results, to benchmark ourselves, against our previous performance and against our competitors. As such, we selected umlaut to measure our performance using its proven methodology, monitoring how the network was changing week by week. It's a fantastic “tool” to measure our results, our progress and how we compare against the competition, and it's evolving as the networks and technology evolves, reflecting the real customer experience through its evolving methodology.”
As a result of this plan, Epic has seen continual improvement in coverage, voice, speeds and latencies. Call drops on the network have reduced by nearly 25%, and most on-net voice calls are now being served over HDvoice and VoLTE. And that's not all: “We are now serving almost all our data traffic over 4G/5G and the speeds in the network are more than 4 times faster than before. These great results, demonstrated through the industry proven and independent benchmark of umlaut, fulfil our expectations and outperform the performance of our competitors, allowing us to claim the undisputable no.1 position among the mobile networks of Cyprus.”
No idle boast – the resilience of the system was tested over 18 months by the pandemic, during which time the need for reliable networks suddenly sprang to the fore, and the demand for data grew like never before. “Our network was put to the ultimate test. We faced a big challenge and, as did every telecoms company in the world, the responsibility to respond effectively to the enormously increased needs of our customers. We had to step up for the good of the people and the good of the country. We managed to very quickly mobilize all our colleagues to work from home, as an emergency measure against the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. During this time, we proved that we can work efficiently from home and so, have decided to keep this option going forward for our people. Microsoft Teams has become our new most used application.”
From school to homes and businesses most people turned to MS Teams, Zoom, WebEx and the like to provide them with reliable interfaces for the multitude of applications that have emerged and been established due to the pandemic, says Michaelides. “We at Epic stood by the side of citizens. Making timely investments, based on our long-term strategic plan for a network that can withstand even the most difficult conditions, we continued to offer seamless communication during a time when public health became a top priority.” The technical teams worked tirelessly to meet these increased needs and it's significant that under these unprecedented and challenging conditions Epic's network achieved the top rating from not one but two independent and globally recognised network performance measurement organisations.
Fibre to the home
Till recently the fixed networks in Cyprus remained largely dependent in DSL and Hybrid Fibre/Coaxial infrastructure. In contrast to mobile, the country has lagged, scoring 82nd on the Ookla Global Index. “We can't go on like that!” says Yiannis Michaelides. “We need to be up in the global top 10, as we are for mobile, and we believe that our FTTH project will be a key driver in reaching this target, just as with our mobile network modernisation.”
It's an ambitious project, conceived in 2018, designed and tested in trials during 2020 and for the last 12 months in full execution mode. FTTH rollout is an expensive and technically as well as regulatory demanding process, but it is the future-proof solution for global telecoms and countries are racing to roll it out.
“To rollout fibre so extensively we needed to optimize the ducting colocation framework in Cyprus, as the ducting infrastructure belongs predominantly to another operator. The framework was mostly appropriate for small rollouts, mainly for point-to-point fibre links to the network nodes and individual businesses, whereas we want to rollout massively to every home in the country. We are working very closely with our regulatory team and the country’s responsible authorities to improve this.”
Before setting out its project Epic's fibre network was limited to business customers: by rolling it out across the country Epic will lead most of its EU peers. How has it been made possible and how can Cyprus afford it? Well, as part of the Monaco Telecom family and the NJJ Group, Epic now has all the expertise it needs at its disposal. As for funding, in March 2021 the European Investment Bank (EIB) announced an investment of €19m for the installation of 1,600km of fibre network as part of Epic's Very High Capacity broadband network rollout in Cyprus. This will allow access to gigabit digital services and connect both towns and rural areas. As Epic's CEO Thanos Chronopoulos said at the time: “We see ourselves as catalysts for change and growth, our FTTH project is set to radically reshape the digital experience of the Cypriot households and enterprises and accelerate economic growth by providing new opportunities for innovation and productivity.”
It will also be a huge and exciting challenge for Michaelides and his colleagues. “Our priorities are a fast rollout, robust design, with enough capacity for the future, using explicitly fibre connections up to the living rooms of households, without any compromising fallback to a copper or coaxial connection, perfect indoor coverage by providing the right customer-premises equipment (CPE) and finally quick and personalised customer support from technicians in the field, and agents in the call centre. The equipment at the premises is equally important as the network, it's no good providing a gigabit connection to a cheap modem with poor Wi-Fi capabilities that gives finally to the customer just 50 Mbit/s – customers will feel cheated!”
Quite an agenda for Epic, but it will make a massive difference to the people of Cyprus and its economy, well expressed by EIB Vice President Lilyana Pavlova. “The EIB recognises the importance of Epic’s long term investment for Cyprus as a knowledge economy, to strengthen business connectivity and competitiveness, and to allow households to benefit from next generation broadband services.”
5G for the future
With all the foregoing to manage you might think Yiannis Michaelides had enough on his plate, but yes, there is more. Monaco was one of the first countries in Europe to deploy a 5G network and all the work done to secure the speed and reliability of the mobile network was done with an eye on building solid foundations for the future 5G network. “We acquired the maximum spectrum possible in both the c-band and the 700mhz band. At the same time, through the upgrade of the antenna systems, we prepared the network for the transition to 5G. We have invested in new international capacity, almost 1Tbit/s, to the international network of our new Group in France and from there to the major European internet centres. This capacity intends to serve the growing needs of 4G and 5G networks, as well as our new FTTH network and our corporate customers.”
In December 2020 Epic received its licence from the Cyprus government to build a 5G network, and officially launched that network on July this year. We did a lot of work on the sites and the network to prepare for this, in collaboration with our major hardware supplier Huawei: we already have a lot of 4G bands (something that is key for a good 5G network) and we have reduced the spectrum we were wasting on 2G and 3G, and in the last years we have installed more than 500km of fibre optic links just to connect the network nodes and the more remote radio sites, so we don't rely so much on microwave, which is expensive and vulnerable to weather conditions. That was good but we needed to know just how well we measured against the competition and our past performance, and that was a big part of the reason we selected umlaut. We have found it very customer-centric, not just about who has the highest speeds but the consistency of your speeds and your HD voice, in other words, customer experience. Now even though we're at the top, we are still improving and optimising.” Huawei, has been an important partner since 2009, since when they have been Epic's preferred vendor in many areas of the network. “We are very satisfied with what we have achieved together with Huawei, and I know they are also very proud and happy with our recent awards from umlaut and Ookla.”
Michaelides and his team are now implementing a broad modernisation plan for Epic’s business support system (BSS), migrating from legacy IT systems into a new CRM system that is being developed in-house and within NJJ. “This is not just about transforming our IT systems, but about transforming the way we do our business. This is going to enable us to manage interactions with customers, at all touchpoints, flexibly, quickly and how they really should be during this digital age” he says.
Partners for progress
Epic Cyprus, Michaelides is the first to admit, would have had no chance of achieving its leadership position in the market without support from partners large and small. Monaco Telecom and its family of companies within the NJJ Group between them provide a valuable resource of technical expertise and investment. And as we have seen long-term partners like Huawei and umlaut have been vital in building and maintaining the infrastructure and assessing performance respectively: but Epic works with a plethora of technical companies on specific requirements. “We prefer to build long-term relationships with our partners. For example, Bluesun Automation, a local supplier with tremendous experience in power and data centres, works with us to build and maintain our data centres. In addition, we have together fully upgraded the power infrastructure of our datacentres and mobile sites, critical to the availability of the network. We are also indebted to GCC (another local partner) and Juniper for revamping completely our IP backbone network, in preparation for the load that will come from the extensive rollout of FTTH, as well as the increasing base and subscriber needs in mobile and 5G.”
Naturally he is keen to retain skills internally as well, develop his teams and as far as possible to be an independent operator, but this has to be balanced, he says, against the need to change quickly and scale up Epic Cyprus' operations for the digital age. Having steered the technical evolution of the company for more than a decade, he's well placed to lead that transformation.