Ray of Light

The wheels have finally begun to turn in Qatar's ICT sector with regards the establishment and formalisation of sector parameters and goals. Hessa Al-Jaber has been appointed secretary general of the Supreme Council for ICT, and told CommsMEA what the organisation's forthcoming priorities are.

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By  Tawanda Chihota Published  July 2, 2005

|~||~||~|IctQATAR is such a new body, it does not yet even have its own office space, and instead presently shares facilities with Qatar’s Ministry of Finance in Doha. This is only a temporary arrangement, and given the importance of the objectives ictQATAR has been set, it is likely the organisation will grow significantly in stature as its recommendations and guidelines are implemented in the market. The development and promotion of the ICT sector is ictQATAR’s core mandate, and extends to the regulation of the telecoms sector, which is the last in the Gulf region not to be formerly regulated. The establishment of ictQATAR as the precursor to the formation of an independent telecoms regulatory body also ushers in the prospect of the entrance of competition into Qatar’s telecoms, though Secretary General Hessa Al-Jaber is quick to point out that this development may still be some time off. Qatar has been the least-regulated telecoms market in the Middle East. The ministry of communications was dissolved in August 2001 and replaced by Postal Public Corporation, whose remit did not include telecommunications. Thus state monopoly Qatar Telecommunications (Qtel), in which the government of Qatar holds a 55% stake, was an essentially self-regulating body and the establishment of ictQATAR is a move to modifying this situation. The government offered 45% of Qtel on the Doha Stock Exchange in 1998. “We are in the process of defining our strategy for the deregulation of the telecommunications sector,” explains Al-Jaber. “The path to this objective is under definition and will be submitted to the decision makers in the State of Qatar for their approval,” she adds. At this stage it is understood that ictQATAR is in the process of selecting legal advisors, and once this is completed, the work on drawing up its strategy will begin in earnest. While Qtel remains the monopoly fixed and mobile operator in the state, it has begun taking steps towards preparation of the entrance of competition in the mobile space in the medium-term. Earlier this year the telco said it planned to spend US$220 million to develop its wireless network over the next two years. The aim is to boost GSM penetration from 65% to 100% of the population, and the telco also expects to commission its 3G system by the end of this year. ||**|||~|Al-Jabar200.jpg|~|Hessa Al-Jaber, secretary general of the recently established ictQATAR.|~|“We are developing our WCDMA services and may very well be the next operator in the region to launch 3G services,” says Aziz Ibrahim Fakhroo, manager of GSM engineering at Qtel’s mobile services division. The telco is looking to roll out the service on a nationwide basis ahead of the 2006 Asian Games, which will be held in Doha. In February, Qtel also launched a marketing campaign promoting the company’s post-paid services. The campaign ran through till March 3, and was seen as a move by the operator to further entrench its position with mobile subscribers ahead of the entry of competition. “At this stage, Qtel is the sole provider of telecommunications services, and we will work with them to ensure that they operate within the regulatory framework under development,” Al-Jaber comments. Given its small population of fewer than 900,000 inhabitants and relatively high mobile and fixed communication penetration levels of 65% and 25% respectively, the prospects for a new entrant remain relatively limited. Qtel’s participation in Oman as part of the consortium behind the new mobile entrant there, Nawras, is also viewed as having given the Qatari operator a better understanding of the advantages of operating in a competitive market. Its partnership with Danish telco TDC in this project and their plans to jointly seek out further opportunities in the region is believed to be offering Qtel greater commercial experience. “International experience suggests that incumbent operators with the level of corporate development of Qtel are well positioned to thrive in a competitive market. In fact, Qtel is already operating in a competitive market through its Nawras venture in Oman,” Al-Jaber says. ictQATAR’s mandate does not extend to the broadcast industry per se, unless technical requirements interfere with the broader communications sector, such as the usage of radio frequency spectrum. The internet is not covered by the decree either, though ictQATAR remains “keen to develop and promote (internet usage), and we want to do that within an incentivising framework to service providers as well as end users,” says Al-Jaber. So far, ictQATAR has developed a five-year strategic plan for the development of the ICT sector and is in the process of detailing the master plan that outlines more than 100 initiatives, involving both the private and public sectors. The organisation is looking to take a holistic view of the sector, starting with the socio-economic development objectives of Qatar, moving to the specific goals in each economic sector, and defining accordingly the related ICT imperatives for each sector. “Our strategy, therefore, mirrors faithfully the requirements of our domestic environment, while building on the international lessons learnt,” Al-Jaber says. ||**|||~||~||~|Experiences in the UAE’s telecoms regulatory development will not doubt be drawn upon in the work that ictQATAR does. The similarities between the two markets in terms of relatively small, affluent populations in which the incumbent operator has gone some way in establishing a decent level of communications infrastructure, are apparent. The UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) recently announced the licensing of a second all-service provider to compete against incumbent Etisalat, and expects to sign the licence agreement with the second operator in July. The second operator is expected to be capitalised at US$1.1 billion, while a partial initial public offering of its shares having been scheduled for later this year. Under the licence, the new entrant will be allowed to pitch a full range of mobile, fixed and internet services against those of Etisalat. The state-owned operator is expected in the next few weeks to issue a reference interconnect offer to the new operator, which will propose terms and conditions by which it can use the incumbent’s network to carry voice calls and data services. Although no further fixed or mobile licences will be offered in the UAE until 2015, TRA director general Mohamed Al Ghanim said that other areas of the telecoms sector will be opened up to outside investors. The TRA has drafted licences for satellite mobile service providers such as Inmarsat and Thuraya and expects them to be awarded within the next two months. The TRA is also considering whether to allow companies to offer walkie-talkie type services to companies and government departments through terrestrial trunked radio (TETRA) networks. Firms may also be allowed to rent capacity on the two major operators’ networks to offer internet services to customers, although they will not be allowed to own their own infrastructure. “Both Etisalat and the second operator will be facilities-based internet service providers. As to whether we will allow other service providers to come in is a question mark that I need to discuss with the board,” says Ghanim. Al-Jaber is unwilling to comment at this stage whether ictQATAR will recommend a closed process to usher in competition, like the one undertaken in the UAE, or whether it will opt for an open bid process as was conducted in Bahrain. “As I have mentioned, we are in the process of defining our strategy for the deregulation of the telecommunications sector and I believe every market has its own conditions and requirements, Al-Jaber contends. “We will participate and be transparent as per the values that Qatar is keen to develop and institutionalise,” she adds. No timeline has been made public. ||**||

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