Special feature: Greece

Interview with Mr Panagiotis Papadopoulos, CEO and Vice-Chairman of BoD, Forthnet

March, 2018

Minister Nikos Pappas underlined the significance and impact of a dynamic and robust ICT sector, which he believes “will be the driver of new growth, and will make the country a leading player and more democratic.” As CEO of one of Greece’s most innovative companies, and as a key ICT researcher who led Greece’s digital transformation, share with us the strategic role that FORTHNET has played and continues to play in creating an ICT-based multiplier effect to boost efficiency and competitiveness of Greece and its economy?

Mr Papadopoulos: We have discussed this matter many times with Mr Pappas and the other executive members of the government. It is widely known that ICT can play a critical role in our economy; not only ours, but every economy. If we look specifically at Greece there are obvious sectors where ICT can contribute; ones where we have a comparative advantage like tourism or transportation and logistics. But in reality, all sectors can benefit, but in order to maximize the impact of ICT, Greece must first upgrade its infrastructure. We see this also as a big opportunity in Greece and one which our company is committed to. I am referring to the lack of high-speed networks and high-speed infrastructure in our country. Only 7% of Greek broadband connections are next generation. The European average penetration is currently 40%. It is necessary for us to close this gap in Greece. This is one of the main issues regarding the ICT sector which is now on the table: the second-access network. Greece is the only European country with just one telecom network access in place. It is an old copper network; there is no fibre, no cable, no alternative technology in order to reach households and businesses. This is an obstacle now as we cannot provide high-speed networks to favor the digital economy. This is an area which the government and the ICT industry must place its focus on.

We acknowledge the government has its vision and it is a radical shift with what has happened up until now. We all agree that without the second access network and without the ability to provide high-speed internet to every business and household, it will not be easy to close this gap compared to other countries. I can also add that our vision as a company is to play a significant role in the development of the second access network. Forthnet has done a lot of work toward this project. We have carried out several assessments and analyses of this project for which we have also prepared a specific business plan. We have teamed up with the Chinese telcom giant, ZTE, to access funding and technology in order to build the second access network in Greece. It will be based on fibre optics, the only future-proof technology right now. There is therefore a clear opportunity right now for the development of this infrastructure to enable and accelerate all the positive effects that the ICT sector can have on tourism, transport and other all other vertical industries of the economy.

Can you give us some more specific data regarding the roadmap to roll out the new second access network in Greece?

Mr Papadopoulos: There is a clear roadmap in place and it is fully endorsed by the government, whose decision makers – all the way to the top – understand the necessity and the value of this project. This is a huge shift from the past; this is something we must acknowledge. On the one hand, we as the private sector are working to convince investors in order to secure funding for this project. On the other hand, there are public sector initiatives that are led by the government which can channel European funds and other government funds in order to support such a strategic initiative. The ICT sector, not any different from our economy at large, needs investment in order to give a strong push and boost growth but in a sustainable way, that will create more jobs and improve the overall business climate.

In 1999 British entrepreneur and visionary, Kevin Ashton, coined the term the “Internet of Things” which has more recently been expanded to “The Internet of Everything”. Cisco estimates that this will consist of 50 billion devices connected to the Internet by 2020. What can you tell us about the relevancy of The Internet of Everything in Greece today, and where is Forthnet’s place is in this digital revolution?

Mr Papadopoulos: We shall arrive at the same conclusion which we discussed previously. The more devices, applications and users that are connected and form part of the Internet of Everything, you need more bandwidth as they will be demanding and consuming increasing amounts of data. In order to support all these devices and connections, you need infrastructure and a fast network in order to deliver all this information. We as a provider and operator, must have the right infrastructure that is necessary to support this.

As a frontrunner in ICT and considering your background in research and entrepreneurship, what can you tell us about the potential in Greece for developing a dynamic tech start-up ecosystem? Is there potential for Forthnet to play a role in developing and investing, thus also reaping the benefits of the contributions the entrepreneurs can make??

Mr Papadopoulos: This can be regarded as the glass half empty or the glass half full. Greece’s highly-educated and skilled individuals must approach the subject with optimism as there are always opportunities. What is lacking right now in most of the start-ups is financing, but this can be considered an opportunity, and not a problem. Start-up companies must seize these opportunities, particularly in the sectors that can be addressed by ICT and where Greece has a comparative advantage, such as tourism, transportation and logistics and energy.

It is true there are ongoing liquidity issues that are faced by entrepreneurs and start-ups, but also by the rest of the economy. Because of this, what is certain is that there must be more initiatives from the government’s side. I believe that all the necessary ingredients exist today in Greece for a much better result in the short-term. A combination of the right skills together with the right funding and the right direction of government initiatives can together make the environment better for tech entrepreneurs. It is our role as the private sector to work closely with the government to create the right framework to put this all together. There are opportunities that exist in the key sectors I mentioned earlier that can be further exploited through ICT development.

Forthnet has successfully navigated the storm during the most turbulent years of recession, and outperformed the market, with only an 8% difference in revenues comparing 2008 to 2016. OTE lost 38%, while Vodafone and Wind lost 47% and 62% respectively during this period. What have been the critical, underlying success factors that have contributed to Forthnet not only weathering the storm, but emerging an even stronger and leaner market-leading company?

Mr Papadopoulos: The story behind this success is the innovation of new products which we had launched to the market during this period. We had point different lines of business: fixed telecom, fixed telephony and Pay TV. We introduced a new line of services to our customers, the bundling of services, known as the Triple Play or 3Play services. The bundling of these three services was revolutionary in Greece at this point. Since we were the first, we grabbed a huge part of the market share. Today we can claim to be the biggest operator offering bundled services to customers in Greece. For historical context, it is important to point out that Forthnet was the company that connected Greece. We are proud about our history and brining the internet to this country. Years later, we also were the ones to bring Pay TV services through our brand Nova. In 2002, we were the first alternative operator providing fixed telecom services beyond the incumbent. We have been innovators since our inception and created many new services for our customers. We continue to do so. For the last twelve months, we are focused on “over-the-top” services and have launched “Nova go” and “Nova on-demand.” These are Pay TV subscriptions, which as the name denotes, are available on the go: on your mobile, your tablet or laptop wherever you may be. Complementary to the DTH satellite Pay TV service, we can also provide wireline, internet on-demand services with hundreds of movies and other titles available now to any of Forthnet’s subscribers.

Our focus in the short-term is on the “over-the-top” services as a complementary line of business to our core subscription business. There is also a new and interesting project that we are carrying out regarding the provision of mobile services. We are in the final steps of negotiating terms, provisions and prices in order to launch in 2018 services beyond fixed telecom, fixed internet and Pay TV, to provide mobile services in a new bundling in a better value-for-money proposition for our customers. This is where we are right now: focused on new services, new propositions to the market, better value-for-money and improved customer experience.

Investment in R&D as a percentage of GDP can be an indicator of how progressive and modern an economy is. In the case of some “high-tech” economies such as South Korea, Japan or the US, the figure stands at around 4-5%. In the case of Greece, this figure has been on an upward trend for the last few years and now stands at around 1%. What can you tell us about Forthnet’s own vision for R&D and its investment programme dedicated to such initiatives? that has existed between Greece and UK for decades. What valuable lessons did you learn while you were in the UK that helped you succeed as a businessman later in life?

Mr Papadopoulos: Forthnet stands for Foundation of Research and Technology Hellas plus the word “Net.” FORTH is a well known research and development centre in Greece, located specifically in Crete where I am from. We are in fact a spin-off from FORTH and were the original network for this centre. We officially spun off in 1994. During this year most of us probably had our first email address. We still have a specific department for research and technology. We are also involved and participate in academic programmes with leading universities and other industrial partners. There are a few noteworthy projects that Forthnet has been behind. One of them has been in e-Tourism. We have a subsidiary company owned 100% by Forthnet which is a direct outcome of our R&D efforts in the past. The focus is the ferry transport sector in Greece, interconnecting different stakeholders such as the ferry companies, travel agencies, port authorities and passengers. The company has successfully developed software that is used by all the stakeholders, simplifying the processes and making it all work more efficiently and paperless. Our objective is to export this software and operating model to the whole of the Mediterranean. We have already created a subsidiary company in Italy.

There is another contribution from Forthnet which is based on our R&D. This project began some years back, but suffered a period of stagnation, before Minister Nikos Pappas has used his leadership to relaunch it. This project has the goal of interconnecting all public premises in Greece. This means connecting government bodies such as ministries and town halls, or things like public hospitals or schools and universities, or museums and cultural centres all part of a network. On the one hand, it is aims to make public service more efficient, but also more transparent and allow for citizens to interact with all these public bodies. We have completed the first phase of the project, which has been the design and development. In 2018, the second phase will begin, which is to implement in a limited coverage area.

On behalf of Forthnet, this is your opportunity to share a powerful message with the business and investor community of the UK.

Mr Papadopoulos: From a macro perspective, it is clear that there is stability in Greece and this trend will continue. There are two very attractive opportunities right now present in Greece: one in Pay TV and the other in fixed telecom industries. We at Forthnet are a partner open for business that will have a significant and vital role in the revolution that will take place with the next generation networks in Greece.