Telia Lietuva adapts to life during wartime

Lithuanian telco Telia Lietuva, bordered by Russia and Belarus, aims to keep improving its network while enduring cyberattacks and living under the threat of armed conflict. For team-building exercises, its employees are building drones, not baking pizzas.

Michelle Donegan, Contributing Editor, Light Reading

June 17, 2024

6 Min Read
Telia corporate logo on building
(Source: Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo)

Telia Lietuva operates in a geopolitical hotspot. Since the war in Ukraine started more than two years ago, the Lithuanian telco faces potential threats of physical and cyberattacks on its infrastructure. Giedrė Kaminskaitė-Salters, CEO of Telia Lietuva, revealed how the operator has remained focused on its strategic aims to grow 5G services and transform business operations while having to adapt to near-term risks.

Sandwiched between Belarus and the Russian province of Kaliningrad, and with neighbors Latvia and Estonia sharing long borders with Russia, Lithuania is "surrounded from all sides with the enemy", she said.

As such, regional tensions are part of common political and business discourse in the country. Telia is a founding member of the "4% Initiative," which is a group of Lithuanian businesses, including the two other main telcos Tele2 and Bitė Lietuva, that is urging the government to increase defense spending from 2.8% to 4% of gross domestic product (GDP).

In the current environment, Telia has had to prepare for events that not many of its telco peers in other parts of the world have to prioritize. The operator has learned from Ukrainian operators about how to keep services up and running in war conditions and it donates network equipment to them to help repair damaged infrastructure.

"We have increased our preparation for war in our business continuity functions", said Kaminskaitė-Salters.

The operator has also introduced a human resources policy that requires team building exercises to include building surveillance drones for the country's military. "So instead of baking a pizza, [colleagues] are building a drone", she said.

Many of Telia's 1,800 employees have welcomed Ukrainian refugees into their homes at some time. Kaminskaitė-Salters hosted a family of three for six months and helped them to find jobs.

On the cyber front, Telia has had to up its game because Belarus and Russia have been more active and the attacks have intensified. The heightened activity against companies and government institutions was most evident in July last year when Lithuania hosted its first NATO Summit.

Telia provided network and communications for the NATO event at the Litexpo conference center in Vilnius and claimed it had built "an Internet fortress." Even if the Internet was disrupted across the country, the Litexpo would have been “the only Internet island,” said Kaminskaitė-Salters in a statement after the event.

Making lemonade from 5G frequency dispute

Geopolitics has affected Telia's strategy before the Ukrainian conflict. The launch of 5G in the country was delayed by several years due to a protracted dispute with Russia over frequency interference in border areas in the 3.5GHz band, which is used by Russian military.

Telia was awarded 5G spectrum licences in August 2022 after the issue was resolved, making it one of the last operators to launch 5G services in Europe.

However, the delay gave the telco time to deal with another geopolitical-related development, which was a national security requirement to remove Huawei equipment from its network. The operator had deployed Huawei in its 4G core and RAN and decided to replace it all with gear from Ericsson and at the same time roll out 5G.

The network swap and upgrade started in 2021 and was completed in 2023 so that the operator was able to launch 5G services soon after receiving its license. By July 2023, Telia's 5G geographic coverage reached 95% of the country.

"The dispute obviously was very worrying and had a direct implication on [the country's] international rankings and on our attractiveness as an investment destination. But we made the most of it. We got the lemon and we made the lemonade. From having been one of the laggards, we again jumped to the very top and we're now among the best-connected countries in Europe and globally", she said.

Focus on 5G takeup

But Telia's strategy isn’t entirely driven by geopolitics. The operator has plans for 5G monetization and operational simplification just like any other telco.

"We have to be prepared for the short-term risks, but our long-term strategy is very much one of growth and being at the forefront of 5G leadership", she said.

Telia has 2.3 million mobile, fixed broadband and TV customers in Lithuania. It also provides B2B services to enterprise customers, which accounted for 36.5% of its total revenue while consumers accounted for 63.5% at the end of March 2024.

Roughly 20% of its 1.6 million mobile customer base has subscribed to 5G services. The telco has also had "massive success" with 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) due to demand for connecting holiday cottages that many people own.

The operator has not yet launched 5G standalone, but it is "only a matter of time" before it does, she said. For now, Telia is focused on growing average revenue per user (ARPU) by getting more 5G devices into the market and upselling customers onto 5G service plans.

Next move is digitalization

Now that the telco has rolled out 5G, the strategic priority is "digitalization" and "all of the organization is going into that," said Kaminskaitė-Salters.

The operator has been undergoing a lengthy backend IT overhaul to consolidate systems onto SAP and has created a new unit to combine this effort with a frontend digital transformation. Telia was formed in 2017 with the integration of Omnitel, Teo and Baltic Data Centre, which left a “spaghetti” of complex IT systems that slowed the operator down.

The biggest part of the backend transformation has been completed and the operator aims to migrate all consumer customers onto SAP by July. Prepaid and B2B customers will follow, but these will be smaller-scale moves.

Now, it is turning attention to accelerating customer experience digitalization.

"We really want to push into the digital customer journey … It's only a matter of time before our customer goes fully digital, and our physical sales and customer care channels become less relevant. We want to be ready. We want to invest in that and joining these two parts together will enable us to do it with one roadmap", she explained.

All in the Telia family

Telia Lietuva is part of Telia Group, which also includes operations in Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Norway and Sweden. The Lithuanian operator contributes approximately 6% of the group's service revenue. It is one of the smallest along with Estonia, but "we are probably the most consistent performers in the group," she said.

Kaminskaitė-Salters was appointed CEO in March 2023. She joined the operator as general counsel in 2015 after a ten-year career as a solicitor in the energy sector in the UK. Having worked roughly the same amount of time in both sectors, she said she prefers telecom.

"You have the complexity of regulation, the excitement of innovation, and the thrill of speed. So it is the best of all industries," she said.

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About the Author(s)

Michelle Donegan

Contributing Editor, Light Reading

Michelle Donegan is an independent technology writer who has covered the communications industry on both sides of the Pond for the past twenty years.

Her career began in Chicago in 1993 when Telephony magazine launched an international title, aptly named Global Telephony. Since then, she has upped sticks (as they say) to the UK and has written for various publications, including Communications Week International, Total Telecom, Light Reading, Telecom Titans and more.

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