The evolution to 5G is destined to change all societies around the globe, and that is particularly evident in the Middle East region. The widespread adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, and artificial intelligence (AI) have all been supported by 5G networks, transforming our way of living for the better.
Within the region, the rollout of 5G infrastructure in Kuwait has been an exemplar for future nations to refer to. The country was one of the region’s early adopters of 5G technology. Its 5G strategy has been part of the wider digital ambitions outlined in the ‘New Kuwait’ Kuwait Vision 2035, which aims to boost digital development as a way to attract foreign investment, lay the foundation of a sustainable economy, and spur domestic growth.
Telecom Review managed to secure an exclusive interview with CITRA’s Chairman and CEO Eng. Salim Muthib Al-Ozainah who shed light on the Kuwait’s 5G journey, including CITRA’s role in the strategic planning phase, the commercial launch, the current 5G development as well as the future perspectives.
Kuwait is well recognized as a pioneer when it comes to 5G technology adoption at a national level, what drove the early interest in such technology?
Kuwait’s population is one of the most demanding globally when it comes to data consumption, back in 2017 the average subscribers monthly data consumption was already at 50 GB per month with huge growth potential, to cope with such demand, Industry stakeholders across Kuwait including CITRA were early to recognize that 5G would be a major upgrade from its predecessor, 4G technology.
New 5G services promised download speeds hundreds of times faster than before, expanded network bandwidth, and reduced service latency. This would in turn enable things such as telesurgery and self-driving cars, and the continued expansion of smart cities in Kuwait.
While many countries have been struggling to explore this new technology and how they could adopt it, Kuwait has rapidly harnessed the potential of 5G, and implemented it in support of future socioeconomic strategies.
As a national regulator, there must have been extensive efforts from your side to bring the industry stakeholders together for 5G commercialization, what was CITRA’s role to shape the national 5G strategy?
The Kuwait Communication and Information Technology Regulatory Authority (CITRA) started its plan for 5G at a very early stage.
In 2017, a Steering Committee headed by CITRA was established with the objective to develop standards and specifications for the development of 5G in cooperation with telecom operators, manufacturers, academics, and international organizations. Numerous consultations and workshops were planned along the way with all such stakeholders. This enabled CITRA to determine a clear spectrum strategy, as well as identify key use cases of 5G and how to achieve its utmost benefits.
In May 2019, CITRA officially allocated 300 MHz of frequency spectrum to operators to deploy 5G services. Then in June 2019, Kuwait became the first country in the Middle East and North Africa region to launch 5G commercially, achieving nationwide coverage with over 6,000 5G sites deployed covering 98% of areas in Kuwait.
Since its launch in 2019, Kuwait witnessed tremendous 5G progress at national level, how do you see the 5G reality now?
Looking to where we are at in 2021, many countries around the globe are still in the planning or initial deployment phases of 5G. However, Kuwait is celebrating its second anniversary of launching commercial 5G services. Since its commercial launch, CITRA has progressed a clear national strategy to encourage the adoption of 5G in different scenarios, including consumer as well as business sector applications.
From the consumer perspective, there has been an increased demand for mobile broadband services. This is seen in monthly subscriber data usage of more than 70GB, the highest globally by far, with user speeds reaching 700Mbps. 5G has played an essential role in facilitating such high demand with its large bandwidth capacity. Even during the latest COVID-19 pandemic peak, CITRA and local telecom operators were able to provide free 5G data packages to all citizens and residents during critical lockdown phases. Even after, CITRA continued its effort to boost 5G adoption in collaboration with operators and ecosystem providers to bring down the package price levels for 5G services, enabling the population to enjoy even more affordable 5G services.
As of now, Kuwait 5G services are priced in a competitive manner compare with 4G, with a higher data quota and a few extra charges. As a result, more than 800,000 users are now enjoying 5G services in the country, with 5G penetration reaching around 20%—a leading benchmark figure in the GCC region.
The 5G promise is not only to boost the end consumer user experience, but also enable different industries and verticals development through innovative use cases, how you evaluate the progress so far in this area?
Nowadays we clearly witness the contribution of ICT technologies into the national development, nations and economies that adopted the digital transformation strategy in their core plans are now enjoying unpresented growth. As the national regulator, our role is to enable Kuwait’s economy to transform into a digital economy leveraging cutting edge ICT technologies such as 5G. The real potential of 5G now lies in industry applications, in the last two years, there have been several initiatives from different sectors in Kuwait to leverage 5G’s capabilities. The financial services and banking sector, for example, has used a 5G mobile ATM truck scenario to provide financial services to areas that were under lockdown during the pandemic. In education, the Ministry of Education adopted 5G connectivity in classes and school campuses for their students and staff. The Oil and gas sector is also exploring 5G remote maintenance and security use cases with aim to reduce the overall operation cost through automation. Moreover, 5G video conferencing and work-from-home applications have been critical for enterprises of all sizes to ensure business continuity.
Today, Kuwait has a clear vision on how to use 5G in various aspects of life, and has already started realizing its benefits in real terms.
With more and more consumers and enterprises enjoying 5G services, the current infrastructure will bear more pressure to deliver the promised best user experience, how CITRA is managing this critical balance?
Providing the best 5G service quality is a top priority in our agenda, we understand customer experience in its broader and more comprehensive scope, avoiding the mistake of focusing only on some aspects like speed, rather, we look into the overall customer journey such as availability, latency, and CRM to name few. Jointly with operators, we are monitoring carefully the current 5G service quality through different means such as field test, surveils, and periodic reports, this is crucial to understand and address potential issues that may arise.
Let’s take indoor coverage availability as example, in the beginning 2020, with more 5G smartphone users in the network, we started to identify indoor coverage issues, this is normal due the physical limitation of the licensed C band spectrum, to cope with it, we worked with operators to rollout the new 2.1 Ghz spectrum band as a second 5G layer, which significantly reduced the coverage gap and improved 5G signal.
Another strategy that we adopted to is to introduce MVNOs license in Kuwait, which was a major millstone in our efforts to provide Kuwait population with the best services, this year we successfully awarded first license for Virgin, we strongly believe that this step will not only enrich current 5G MBB service offering resulting in overall user satisfaction, but also create a more healthy telecom market dynamic where service providers and consumers can benefit from a win-win situation.
How do you evaluate 5G success story in Kuwait so far, and how do you see the 5G development perspectives in Kuwait for the foreseen the future?
Overall, Kuwait is proud to own one of the most advanced 5G network infrastructures in the world. It is one of the relatively few countries that have introduced 5G applications into its digital economy. Today, 5G covers nearly all of Kuwait’s population, with an emphasis on affordable 5G services, by end of 2021 we expect to achieve the milestone of 1.2 million 5G users (more than 25% of total population) in Kuwait.
Moving forward, under the wise leadership of H.H. Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, entities like CITRA are redoubling their commitment to support the ‘New Kuwait’ Kuwait Vision 2035. The work of CITRA and its partners will help to transform Kuwait into a knowledge-based economy and society; one that harnesses the potential of emerging ICT such as IoT, cloud, and AI together with 5G as the foundation. Several initiatives are anticipated to be announced by CITRA in the near future including, but not limited to, new 5G spectrum, quality of service frameworks, and the synergy of cloud and 5G. Together with operators, CITRA will pay special attention to further improve the 5G user experience, developing the necessary regulatory frameworks and tools to ensure the highest standards for 5G services. All of these efforts will ultimately keep Kuwait amongst the global forerunners in 5G leadership.