The best regulatory solution is one that adapts legislation and innovations to new services and moves gradually towards a regulatory framework that is evolutionary in its approach whilst at the same time ensuring consistency across the national regulatory policy, says H.E. Mohammed Ali Al-Mannai, president of the Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA) - State of Qatar, speaking to Telecom Review about the ever-changing and expanding role of regulators.
Briefly, what are your thoughts on the overall state of the telecoms sector?
Communications is a core constituent of the social and business fabric of any country. The sector is evolving at incredible speed, and it is critical to keep pace with the ever-changing dynamics. As such, our role as regulator is always changing and expanding. The advent of digital technologies allows different network platforms to carry essentially similar kinds of services. This mixture of content, service, infrastructure and end user equipment has led to 'convergence' between old and new media, brought about by the ability to provide a range of services over a single network; an example could be the so-called "triple play" services (internet, broadcasting and telecommunications).
The combination of services over the same platform is challenging common perceptions about the best means to license and regulate providers - and users - in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector. Traditionally, regulatory frameworks were designed for an era when clear functional differences existed between services and infrastructure. But I believe that these types of frameworks are becoming increasingly ineffective for dealing with the dynamics of the sector and the direction it is moving in, particularly with the arrival of technologies such as the concept of smart nation, government digital services, highly secure networks, internet of things (IoTs) and even artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.
How have these macro developments affected the strategy of the CRA?
Since its inception, CRA has been committed to develop what was already been established and to introduce new regulations and policies to meet the new mandates given to CRA. To effectively manage the ever changing sectors regulated by CRA, it is essential that CRA is a 'converged' regulator, more than just a traditional regulatory body. The best regulatory solution is one that adapts the legislation to new services and moves gradually towards a regulatory framework that is evolutionary in its approach whilst at the same time ensuring consistency across the national regulatory policy. Given the rapid development of technology, innovations, the blurring boundaries of ICTs and the rapid convergence of traditional and new telecommunications, multimedia and IT services, we are adopting a more flexible regime of laws and regulations that are able to accommodate future technological changes and the market dynamics created by them.
CRA supports Qatar's National Vision 2030 and national initiatives such as Tasmu - Smart Qatar, as well as preparedness for upcoming IoTs. And for this, we need to have a flexible regulatory framework that effectively accommodates new technologies. We also need to enable the sectors to make increasing contributions to the overall GDP of the economy. To do this we need to create an attractive market place that continually draws long-term investment and where competition thrives.
What does this mean in practice?
I believe that a key element to convergence in regulation is being directly engaged with the full range of stakeholders across the sectors we regulate, including consultations and training with relevant parties regarding new regulations and regulatory instruments. This engagement, in turn, will allow us to make better future policy decisions.
We have dedicatedly developed comprehensive regulatory frameworks, expanding the provisions of telecom law and bylaws to clarify rights and obligations, and now we are working towards the implementation of the Competition Policy, which lays out in detail clear processes, codes of behavior, market definitions and dominance designation. The objective was to clarify the applicable framework, and make it consistent and predictable for all stakeholders.
In order to further this goal, CRA dedicated much of 2016 to 'socializing' its framework, so that all stakeholders would understand its implications. In 2017, we are improving understanding of competition and institutionalizing training to achieve it. CRA has developed an innovative training platform to bring everyone up to speed with the new regulations as quickly as possible. Service providers also participated in workshops to improve their respective behaviors.
In 2017, we will focus on a market review of the communications sector and this should result in a new strategy that will provide clear direction on the way forward.
We are also in constant contact with other regulators around the world to exchange ideas and experiences that will help the industry to evolve.
We consider best practice policy and regulatory decision-making that drives accessibility, affordability and competitiveness, while ensuring that the digital ecosystem is fair and offers protection to all. One area we have seen success is the recent coordination between GCC countries to reduce data roaming rates across the region.
How is the ICT sector in Qatar fairing currently?
The ICT sector in 2016 continued to make an important contribution to the diversification of the Qatari economy and was responsible for 1.77% of Qatar's total GDP (up from 1.3% in 2014). To clarify here, ICT includes postal, telephone and satellite communication systems.
Overall, market revenues in 2016 remain unchanged compared to 2015; this is a sign that the traditional telecommunication markets in Qatar have begun to mature. We believe that this is largely due to competitive pressures and a different population mix. However, service providers have adapted to these changes well, increasing efficiency, as shown in improving EBITDA margins and diversifying their revenue streams into associated activities.
Fixed line network covers almost the whole country and 99% of Qatar's households are now covered by a fiber optic network. With a nationwide fiber optic network, customers now enjoy a high service speed. 90% of the customers are on packages of 10Mbps and above. More than half of customers subscribe now to "triple play" packages, up from around 42% in 2015. These figures indicate customers are becoming increasingly sophisticated, who will, in the medium term, help to increasing the service providers' revenues.
In general, the ICT sector in Qatar continues to make a valuable contribution to the national economy and we are now seeing a mature market develop. Service providers are adapting well to this macro change by diversifying their businesses and becoming more efficient.
You mentioned competition was a key area for the development of the sector. What is CRA doing in this area?
As the communications sector evolves and looks to support Qatar's National Vision 2030, open and fair competition has increasingly become important to encourage sustainable growth and success. Considering the size of the Qatar market, the telecom sector continues to expand very quickly and has been identified as a key enabler of Qatar economic diversification. We shall use competition as a means to foster growth and innovation for everyone's benefit.
We are working continually to increase competition and whilst we have a lot to do, we are already starting to see the impact of the increasing competition in the market and this is always positive for consumers. Looking at the last three years, we have already seen competition bringing costs down and increasing the range and quality of services available to consumers. Competition is leading to more sophisticated offers from service providers, which has led to more sophisticated consumers which will ultimately generate more innovation in the sector in-line with the CRA's wider mission to create a fair and sustainable marketplace and improve customer experience.
CRA is also engaging government entities, service providers and other stakeholders to mitigate anti-competitive behavior as an important step towards sustainable competition in Qatar's telecommunications market that will ultimately benefit consumers and service providers equally. Indeed, CRA is actively developing an implementation plan for competition policy that focuses on areas where competition would have the greatest impact on growth and innovation.
'Socialization' of the benefits of competition is a key area of focus for us. As part of this we are conducting a series of intensive workshops highlighting the implementation and enforcement measures of the Competition Framework, issued by CRA in 2015 to encourage competition and combat anti-competitive practices. The Competition Framework includes a competition policy, market assessment methodology and a complaints process.
How does the CRA balance the rights of consumers with the needs of service providers? Is this an ongoing challenge?
As access to communications services has evolved from 'nice to have' to 'essential to have', and internet connectivity is ubiquitous, what's noticed more is its absence than its availability. It is against this backdrop that the quality and scope of the telecommunication services available has become a priority.
Setting criteria for measuring quality of service (QoS) expected of all telecommunications services provided to the public is an important part of what the CRA does. We closely monitor the compliance of the service providers of telecommunications services in Qatar.
We are working closely with licensed service providers to guarantee that they meet the highest level of quality when it comes to the services they offer and advertise. To that end, and in the interest of helping consumers make informed decisions, CRA intends to publish QoS reports for service providers, with regular updates planned.
These reports will cover a wide range of compliance standards related to the quality of service obligations set out in providers' licenses, including the time taken to solve billing complaints, network quality, complaints received, successful call ratios, dropped call rates and billing accuracy. The QoS reports will indicate each operator's level of compliance with regards to their quality of service obligations as set out in their licenses. This will empower consumers the ability to make more informed choices about which services providers to use and impel service providers to maintain high standards.
Alongside this we have numerous campaigns, initiatives and tools running to ensure that consumers are informed of their rights and responsibilities and they have an independent body that can resolve issues with service providers.
Another key aspect of any national regulator's job is managing the nation's spectrum needs. What steps have you taken to ensure that it is properly managed?
Radio spectrum a fundamental, finite and valuable national resource and its careful management is critical to the smooth running not only of major global events taking place in Qatar such as the World Cup 2022, but also everyday operations of telecommunication, government, aviation, security, energy, ICT and other nationally important sectors and ultimately impacts the country's GDP.
Demand for radio spectrum in Qatar is high and growing every day, particularly because of the numerous advanced technologies that require new radio spectrum alongside existing technologies.
There are an increasing number of high profile events happening in Qatar in the coming years which will put additional demands on the spectrum. We were very busy last year in all matters relating to the management of frequencies in Qatar and, as the figures indicate, there is rapidly growing demand for spectrum across the nation. The number of spectrum licenses issued in 2016 was up 145% from the previous year and the number of frequencies assigned also saw a significant rise in 2016 up 117% from 2015.
In fact, the challenge among regulators worldwide is to find enough spectrum for future radio applications and next generation networks such as 5G. Part of our journey to becoming a converged regulator is ensuring a consistent and converged position across all uses of the spectrum. This means constant coordination with other regulators in the GCC to ensure harmonization and a robust and effective management process.
Last year we made a big step forward in the management of spectrum in Qatar, launching the National Frequency Allocation Plan and an automated spectrum monitoring and frequency management systems, to ensure proper management of the radio spectrum usage.
Crucially, NFAP takes into account convergence, integrating the planning of public protection and disaster relief measures, unmanned aircraft systems, global flight tracking, maritime safety, amateur radio, new technologies and other areas of focus at the International Telecommunication Union's World Radio communication Conference.
Looking forward, what are the areas you are concentrating on in the coming years?
Going forward, we are looking at a number of key areas; we are in the process of developing ICT data privacy bylaws needed manage the flow of stakeholders and promote security awareness.
Although almost the entire country is now covered by fiber optic, we are looking at ways to promote additional competition in the fixed line market. The postal sector and access to digital media are new mandates and CRA is already working on assessing the sectors' dynamics and how to balance policies and regulations taking into consideration their impacts on service providers, OTTs, platforms or applications.
As I mentioned earlier, a market review of the communications sector will assist in developing a new strategy that will provide clear direction on the way forward in the areas of regulation around data, datacenters, application layers and others.
In the next couple of coming years, we will also be addressing areas such as IoTs, 5G or any other new innovations and technological developments that are being developed. CRA is also keen to engage regional and international entities and organizations to collaborate and prepare for future technologies and infrastructure.
Overall, I think that CRA has made good progress towards supporting Qatar's transition to a connected digital economy and the plan is to build on the strong momentum generated in the last few years by continuing to open doors for investment, new innovations and new business models in the market.