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Modern telecoms can trigger diversification and growth

Interview - February 2, 2012
Dr. Hamed Salim Al Rawahi, Chief Executive of Oman’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, discusses how high-speed broadband and increased connectivity will help his country’s economy

The Telecommunications Industry in Oman has seen major changes in the past decade. What has been the role of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) in the evolution of the Omani Telecom sector?

The TRA has been playing the role of a facilitator and promoter of the telecom liberalization policy. We promote investment and competition in the sector by awarding licenses and issuing executive regulations to ensure non-discrimination and technology neutrality. TRA plays an active role in devising programs and initiatives that drive the availability of telecom services to remote areas by Universal Service Obligations (USO) and promotion of broadband in urban and rural areas by a combination of license obligations and incentivisation.

There are four key areas which we are primarily focused on: One: New initiatives taken by the Information Technology Authority (ITA) to expand internet literacy. Last year the Government supplied 40,000 free laptops to help improve the competency levels of users.

Broadband access extending into rural areas. This is a key part of the National Broadband Strategy. It is the wish of the Government that every citizen has access to reliable, high speed broadband internet. A major challenge we face in meeting this target is servicing our rural areas, the difficult terrain here makes that difficult but as technology improves our ability to reach those remote areas will improve.

Then there are the additional submarine cables set to boost international connectivity and capacity. In March 2011 the TRA contracted AusRegistry International, a multinational domain name registry service provider based in Melbourne, to establish and oversee a new top-level domain name registry system in Oman. The firm will manage the existing .om domain, in addition to a planned Arabic script domain, which is expected to have a major positive long-term effect on internet usage in the Sultanate.

When can we expect to see the issuing of a new license for a third mobile phone operator?

We are currently carrying out market analysis to determine if there is room in the market for a third operator to exist. If the market is already too saturated with low profit margins it will not be attractive to investors.

In the absence of a third mobile operator the TRA initiated action to introduce mobile resellers in the market to simulate limited competition by product differentiation and improved quality of service offerings.

The ICT Industry is one which evolves at a rapid pace. To retain its competitive edge in the region, Oman must ensure that it keeps abreast of the latest developments in the industry. What have been the major developments in the sector over the last few years?

Perhaps the most important recent development in Oman’s ICT sector has been the rapid rise of broadband over the past few years. This is largely the result of initiatives created as part of the e-Oman project since 2006.

In 2010 the TRA launched the National Broadband Strategy, which aims to introduce a broadband connection into every home and business in the Sultanate, and should have a major effect on the broadband market in the coming decade.

A number of additional changes have resulted in major upgrades to the Sultanate’s ICT infrastructure. In June 2011 the country switched from the IP version 4 (IPv4) protocol to the IPv6 protocol, thereby opening up many new IP addresses. As of February 2011, the Sultanate had issued all of the 4.3bn possible IPv4 addresses. The lack of new IP addresses since then has caused connectivity problems for many users. The switch to IPv6, which, at 128 bits, allows for a massive amount of new addresses, should solve this problem for decades to come.

Boosting awareness about the value of ICT among all segments of society is considered paramount to the ongoing development of the industry. With this in mind, the government and a handful of private sector institutions offer a variety of training and education programmes. In addition to the GITTC program, which offers training in ICT to government employees, the ITA oversees the Community IT Training project, which seeks to boost ICT literacy among the general population.

As Chief Executive of TRA, what are your priorities for the coming years as you seek to drive the industry forward?

Our aim is to focus on the consumer as the principal stakeholder and aim at providing choices in terms of service availability, service quality and competitive prices. Suitable mechanisms and frameworks would be established to promote competition and ensure predictability in terms of interventions by the regulator. I would like to reiterate the government policy in terms of transparent governance by engaging all the concerned stakeholders in evolving policies and their implementation. The processes and procedures would be made simpler aiming at consumer friendly disposition and clarity in terms of expectations and decisions.

How do you view the role of telecommunications in providing stimulus and cutting edge technology to the economy as Oman seeks to shift from a hydro-carbon dependent base?

Telecoms has been a significant enabler and stimulant for the wheels of the economy by being an important soft infrastructure. Connectivity and high speed broadband help the economy grow and enhance the competitiveness of the business and industry. One of the key elements of Vision 2020 of Oman is to diversify the economy into non-oil sectors and the e-Oman plan has identified the development of a Knowledge Based Society to play a significant role in the diversification process.

What challenges lie ahead for the ICT industry in Oman and how would you like to see the sector evolve?

The challenges posed by changes in technology and convergence of related sectors like information and broadcasting need to be properly addressed and factored in to evolve a future  proof telecom policy. Continuous scanning of the environment and engagement with the key stakeholders are helping the TRA to assure a growth in the telecoms sector for both the consumers and the industry participants. 

During the protests in March 2011, H.M. the Sultan promised the creation of 50,000 jobs for the Omani people. What role did the ICT industry play in assisting the Government with this pledge?

The ICT industry was able to absorb a lot of these positions. We took on a large amount of new staff throughout the sector. There is great demand for employment opportunities in the ICT industry and the feedback we have received from employers regarding the new recruits has been excellent.

What investment opportunities exist for overseas investors?

There are numerous opportunities for American companies to invest and participate in the growing telecoms market in Oman. The current opportunities unfold in broadband and content related service offerings apart from application oriented service delivery to satisfy the ever growing expectations of the discerning segment of consumers.

In this time of upheaval and turmoil in the Arab world, what message would you like to deliver to the readers of USA Today?

Oman has been a torch bearer in consistent adherence to proclaimed policies and its track record, in respect of predictability and ensuring a level playing, field have been exemplary. Oman is very keen to spread the benefits of telecoms to rural and remote areas to balance the growth and employment opportunities evenly. International investors could seize such opportunities with a view to sharing the vision of e-Oman and the diversification of the economy.