|Just when you think peace has broken out on the telecommunications front, along comes a little storm front to create some turbulence, and make life interesting!
The cause of the latest hoo-hah within the telecommunications sector in the Kingdom relates to the awarding of additional licences within the 900, 1,800, 1,900, 2,100 and 2,600 MHz frequency bands. Needless to say, the existing three mobile operators, together with Mena Telecom, argued that, in saturated market, the sector was already sufficiently competitive.
The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) did not buy into this objection, although the regulator did conclude that no affirmative action — to reserve capacity for new entrants — was required. Instead, the TRA plans to proceed to auction off five lots of new frequency spectrums, with the winners being announced in the second quarter of this year.
This scenario has come about as a result of a specific conclusion reached in compiling the third National Telecommunications Plan published in July last year. This noted that the Kingdom was disadvantaged “by the inability of its providers of mobile services to create infrastructure that complies with Long Term Evolution (LTE) standards in a technically efficient manner”.
Moreover, the “lack of efficiently provided [beyond] 3G-based services is likely to deprive citizens of attractive mobile functionality, and diminish the external perception of Bahrain as a leader in the adoption [of new technologies].”
LTE or STR?
LTE is so-named as it is intended to establish a platform from which a whole host of new services can be delivered, which will dramatically change and improve the mobile experience for the customer in the long term. Ironically, LTE would seem to have the capacity to deliver an entirely different result — a short-term revolution (STR)!
There is, though, an altruistic viewpoint on the issue of additional mobile licences. Historically, a level playing in the telecom sector has centered on access to the fixed line network owned by an incumbent operator. In this world there are no constraints to the number of players. Anyone who wants to operate in this market — the majority of the new operators — can simply apply for an appropriate licence.
But what constitutes a level playing field in the increasingly mobile world in which we live? Should there be any restrictions on the number of mobile players? Moreover, one might argue the inability to acquire access to a mobile network creates a distorted and unfair market. Such a lack of access could be seen as a competitive disadvantage.
Even the mobile operators themselves, across the globe, no longer see ‘ownership’ of a mobile network as being an exclusive imperative. Many have opened discussions and done deals on ‘sharing’ network infrastructure in order to optimise costs.
Much of the fisticuffs we have seen in recent years has surrounded agreement to the wholesale fee other operators should pay Batelco for the use of ‘their’ fixed line network. The TRA is planning to open up the mobile market in a similar fashion, with new plans on spectrum packaging (due in 2014) and with it the ability to trade such spectrums.
This, potentially, opens the door to one (or more) bidders for the new spectrum capacity to act solely as a wholesaler, retailing capacity to whoever wishes to use it. We are all familiar with the ‘gold rush’ scenario; it was those who sold the spades that made the money rather than the prospectors!
Such a scenario in the mobile market would indeed create a revolution in the short term.
Back in the old days data overload used to be about coping with an excess of information; today it simply means you need to upgrade your device and access a faster connection.
Keeping pace with a fast-moving market is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity for the modern consumer.
Our capacity to manage content has grown exponentially, whether through rich applications or being ‘hooked’ on social media. It would seem that more is never enough. Or, as Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, and the starting point for modern economics, noted back in 1776 when his book was first published, more is better!
While much of the focus on the telecommunications market has been on the retail side of the equation, there has nevertheless been plenty of action behind the scenes.
In the ‘upstream’ segment of the market — the delivery of communications capacity into and out of the Kingdom — the argument always used to be about breaking Batelco’s monopoly. Today, the issue is simply about securing even greater capacity.
This segment of the market falls to those operators who possess an ‘International Telecommunications Facilities’ licence. In the past couple of years, liberalisation of the telecom market has seen some major gains when it comes to boosting capacity, from both Batelco and other players. The likes of the Falcon project (Flag Telecom) and the Tata Global Network (Bahrain Internet Exchange) have delivered the capacity required to meet our ever-increasing demands.
Alongside this, the like of Bahrain Internet Exchange and Gateway Gulf (holders of Internet Exchange licences) create local facilities to speed up our connection with the Internet, both locally and internationally.
This capacity building might surf under the radar but it is a critical component in facilitating the sort of services that we take for granted.
Names such as Batelco, VIVA and Zain are firmly entrenched in our mindset as a result of the mobile licences that they have secured. Other players such as Mena Telecom and Lightspeed Communications also resonate in our consciousness, as do the likes of Nuetel, Kalaam Telecom, 2Connect and Etisalcom.
Others might be less familiar. Bahrain Broadband, which operates under the name Greenisis, offers wireless broadband services while preserving the health of our environment. Atyaf Telecommunications and Infrastructure holds the exclusive rights to provide the telecom infrastructure on Durrat Al Bahrain, in a manner not dissimilar to Nuetel on Amwaj Islands.
Elephant Talk Bahrain was established to offer a range of mobile networking software and services, while Rawabi Next Generation Network Solutions provides integrated voice and data services. Rapid Telecommunications has secured contracts such as the exclusive rights to build the fibre optic and wireless infrastructure for the Bahrain Investment Wharf (BIW), located in the Hidd Industrial Zone.