Shaping the future of telecoms
The SAMENA Telecommunications Council aims to drive dialogue on the future of the telecoms sector
The development of a broadband economy is an important goal for all countries, and a vital part of enabling smart government, but providing the telecoms infrastructure which is required for this goal in the main is falling to the telecoms operators, and increasingly there are questions about the future shape of the industry and what role the private sector will play in enabling these national goals.
Providing one of the main platforms for discussion of these questions is the SAMENA (South Asia, Middle East, North Africa) Telecommunications Council, formed in 2006 to represent telecoms service providers including fixed, mobile, satellite and submarine operators. Bocar Ba, CEO of SAMENA said that the role of the council is in building consensus and negotiating issues with all stakeholders with regard to creating the digital economy.
“Today, we need, through our platform, to create that consensus among the different stakeholders,” Ba explained. “There is a consensus among the operators on the role they have to play, but they acknowledge also that there is a consensus on the challenges that they are facing.”
The challenges that the telecoms operators are facing include increasing affordable access to broadband for all parts of society, and delivering networks that can cope with increasingly massive volumes of data, he said, which require negotiations with government and other stakeholders with regard to regulation and governance of the sector. As private sector organisations, telecoms operators need to have a healthy, sustainable business model, but profit margins in traditional areas like voice calls are under pressure at the same time as operators are being asked to invest into new network infrastructure.
“At the heart of the network, we must have broadband, we must have connectivity — without broadband, nothing can happen. As we are used to having electricity or water, broadband has to be a part of the infrastructure. Broadband is being implemented by the telecom operators,” Ba said.
“The challenge that we are facing today is who is going to bear the investment for the future networks, given that today, there are many obstacles for a healthy business. Number one is the problem that we have with the data traffic. Our networks are pounded with data — how do we manage it tomorrow?
“Number two, if we are the one to bear the investment, how do we co-operate with government and how can government support us in that investment? Do we need to have a third party intervention, are we left alone, is it possible to be incentivised by tax reduction or tax optimisation?”
Ba said that while operators understand the need to transform their business to be able to deliver affordable services and high quality, reliable networks, there is no one model that has emerged of how to do this or whether there is need for government investment in networks, and that setting the path for the future will require co-operation with other stakeholders including government, OTT service providers and technology providers.
The issue of network investment is particularly heightened by emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT). With Cisco predicting that there will be some 50 billion devices connected to the Internet by 2020, operators face a major challenge in ensuring their networks can cope with the increase in traffic.
“We will be facing one of the biggest revolutions in the history of humankind — the Internet of Things. If today we have a problem of a data tsunami on our network, how will we manage those 50 billion devices tomorrow?” Ba said, adding that the IoT will also require many more stakeholders to be involved in discussions so that verticals like education, health, the corporate sector and so on can all benefit from the IoT.
While there are many approaches to smart city connectivity, Ba added, it is important that countries do not adopt different systems and standards, but rather develop a uniform network and connectivity to avoid creating a fragmented and unconnected market, which requires different stakeholders to align their positions.
From the operator perspective, it is important to understand whether they can make money from the ‘smart city’ or whether it is a community service, he said, which in turn will influence discussions on the operators requirements, and whether they need more spectrum allocation, tax incentives or sovereign fund investment in smart cities.
Other areas of focus for SAMENA members include issues such as net neutrality and how revenues can be made from ‘over the top’ services. Making smartphones affordable for the mass population is another important issue, so that everyone can benefit from the digital economy. According to figures from IDC, smartphones accounted for 41.9% of all mobile handset shipments to the Middle East and Africa region in 2014, with smartphones priced under $100 accounting for just 20% of the market. Government measures such as cuts on import duty could help to increase uptake, Ba commented.
“To enjoy the benefits of the digital economy, we need to have to hand the tools, the smart devices,” he said. “If government can stimulate the demand, by finding ways to make handsets affordable to all, then the mass population can have the devices and access to all types of application, whether it is government applications, e-health, or education applications. This is how populations and citizens will enjoy the benefits of the digital economy.”
The overall aim for SAMENA is to help facilitate discussions among all parties, Ba said, and understanding that different stakeholders have different aims and responsibilities, all within the remit of keeping the end user satisfied.
“Whether they are called customers or citizens or consumers, the basic aim is the same — how can we make them happy?,” he said. “I believe that to have a successful discussion, we need to identify clear goals and we need accountability. Each stakeholder has understand that he is accountable for certain deliverables.
“If you want to deliver, you have to redefine find the role of each area — the private sector has to make a profit, the government’s role is to look after the citizens and create data protection laws, and the technology providers have to provide service delivery platforms. Once the roles are clear and understood, the private sector and public sector can work together, for this same objective, the same goal, with different benefits. This has to be made very clear.”