Fixed agenda

The head of the regulatory division of ICTQatar, William Fagan, tells George Bevir about the organisation’s plans for 2010, including boosting broadband penetration and improving the standard of customer care offered by the country’s operators

Tags: Mobile broadbandQatarQatar TelecomSupreme Council of Information and Communication TechnologyVodafone Qatar
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Fixed agenda
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By  George Bevir Published  January 7, 2010

In the nine months since it launched, Vodafone Qatar has signed up 320,000 subscribers, firmly bringing an end to Qtel's mobile monopoly. But competition has yet to reach fixed services, with Vodafone Qatar and the Qatar Foundation still waiting to be officially awarded the licence that was provisionally granted in September 2008.

Two months ago, Vodafone Qatar said the consortium was "working through the pre-grant requirements specified by ICTQatar prior to being awarded the licence," and that "the management anticipate this could be finished by the end of November 2009 to enable the first fixed services to be launched in late 2010."

The head of ICTQatar's regulatory division, William Fagan, points out that it isn't the regulator holding things up. He says the reason for the delay is that Vodafone Qatar and the Qatar Foundation have yet to form the company that will look after the fixed interests.

"There are some corporate governance issues, which we expect to be overcome very shortly," he says. "The issues holding this up will be resolved early in the new year...I would expect to see the fixed service occurring in 2010."

Allowing a second telco to offer internet services will play an important role in boosting internet usage in Qatar. According to Qtel's third quarter results, it had 427,130 users of its fixed internet and triple play services, from a population of 833,285. Fagan says that Qatar is no different from most other countries in that raising the broadband penetration is a prime objective.

"We want it to be at a level that puts Qatar up right there with the leading countries in the world," Fagan says.

He is reluctant to talk about specific download rates, but the countries he references - Singapore, Korea and Japan - claim maximum theoretical download speeds in the region of 80Mbps and above and some of the highest average download speeds in the world.

"We are conscious of the fact that it may need big fibre developments, but it may also require a combination of other technologies," Fagan adds.

Fagan says that while a return on investment for fibre deployment could be achieved in less than five years in high density areas of Qatar, in medium density areas it could take as long as 20 years. Talks are taking place with operators about the possibility of combining different types of technology to alleviate some of the cost of fibre while maintaining the focus on speed, with wireless technologies LTE and WiMAX mentioned as possible solutions to the coverage conundrum.

Sharing resources

Fagan estimates that 70-80% of the cost of installing fibre is related to the cost of the dig and the process of putting the cable into the ground. To reduce the cost, he says infrastructure could be shared, although the precise terms of any agreements have yet to be finalised.

"We put out something in the original fixed licence which provided for no mandated access - which is slightly different to exclusivity - for a period of three years, but that may or may not be a feature of the final licence. But generally, as a regulator, you do not favour exclusivity," he says.

A passive infrastructure licence could be provided to developers of major projects so that buildings do not have to be revisited for fibre installation. Fagan gives the example of the new airport being built in Qatar that he says will "probably" be ducted and fibred by the builders, leaving the various businesses grouped in the airport complex free to choose their service provider.

"It's a common model; if you look at Heathrow in the UK you'll see a similar model," Fagan says. "Otherwise you have people coming back into the development once it's been built and it annoys people. The idea is that if the fibre goes in now, new buildings will be ready-equipped."

Relations between Vodafone Qatar and Qtel appeared to sour over the issue of sharing the incumbent's mobile infrastructure. Qtel reacted strongly to what it perceived to be accusations of intransigence; the incumbent said it had fulfilled all its regulatory obligations and that any delays to the roll out of Vodafone Qatar's network were a result of poor planning on the newcomer's part. Vodafone Qatar issued another statement, with CEO Grahame Maher saying he was "impressed with Qtel's willingness at a board level to share towers ...however it is taking a lot longer than I expected for sharing to be implemented".

"Nothing that has happened here is unusual," Fagan says. "It is natural for the incumbent to consider that it has invested in the network, and therefore why should it share. And if it has to share, that it should get a return on the investment."

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