TBY talks to Mohamed Nasser Al Ghanim, Director General of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), on the move away from monopoly and fiber-optic solutions.
TBY What has been the biggest achievement of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) since its inception in 2003, and was it in line with what you originally set out to achieve?
MOHAMED NASSER AL GHANIM The vision of the TRA is an optimal enabling environment in which the UAE’s ICT sector will emerge as a leader in the global marketplace. Since its inception, the TRA has at all times worked toward this vision whilst respecting government policy and the aspirations of the leadership. The TRA’s vision has been supported by four strategic objectives: organizational excellence; the e-readiness of government services; the promotion of shared infrastructure between government entities; and a world-leading environment for ICT services. In accordance with its vision, the TRA is working closely with all stakeholders to undertake the necessary projects to secure the TRA’s vision for the sector. Since introducing competition in mobile services in 2007, the TRA has been very happy with the way the mobile market has developed. We have two very innovative operators with advanced networks offering low prices by international standards. Competition works very well in that market. The TRA is in the process of introducing a range of measures to enhance competition within the market such as, for example, bitstream interconnection and passive infrastructure sharing (ducts, cables, and exchanges) for high-speed data markets. In terms of consumers, the TRA recently undertook a number of surveys within the UAE that revealed, among other things, that there is generally a high level of satisfaction amongst businesses and consumers with the ICT services delivered in the UAE. Finally, a number of international bodies collect information from around the world in order to rank countries across a wide range of different telecommunication sector indicators.
What role does the evolution of the local telecommunications industry play in the wider 2030 vision for the UAE? What are the strengths of the UAE as a regional ICT hub?
The overall health of the UAE’s economy is intrinsically linked to the state of the telecommunications sector. This is because telecommunications is a vital business input. If we want a strong economy, we need a strong and sustainable telecommunications sector. Without a robust telecommunications sector in the UAE, businesses would not be able to compete effectively in the global markets and they would be less likely to move to the UAE. Telecommunications also plays a very important role in the day-to-day life of our residents, so it is important from a social perspective that we continue to focus on safeguarding the future of the sector.
How large a role does the ICT sector currently play in contributing to Dubai’s economy?
Dubai’s economy is strongly ICT based and matches the TRA’s vision of becoming a global leader in the region for ICT services. In the free zones of Dubai (and, to a certain extent, Abu Dhabi) many of the world’s leading ICT companies have established offices or partnerships with established ICT companies locally. The TRA has a key role to play in ensuring the continuation of a strong and sustainable telecommunications sector. The TRA has put in place policies ranging from the prevention of anti-competitive practices to cyber security to improve the functioning of the telecoms market in these zones. It must also be recognized that the TRA’s role is not just to assist in the development of industry—it is also to protect the end-users of telecommunications services. But, overall, we strive to ensure that we achieve an internationally competitive telecommunications sector that supports the growth ambitions of the UAE’s economy and at the same time meets the needs of both business and consumers in Dubai.
The entry of du into the market in 2007 changed the market from a monopoly to a duopoly. What challenges were faced in effecting this change?
The main challenges the TRA faced during the introduction of du into the telecommunications sector was to ensure the appropriate policies and practices were in place to allow competition to develop. Since the introduction of du in 2007, both UAE operators have invested heavily in fixed and mobile infrastructure, with each having very advanced 4G mobile networks, and in high-speed fixed fiber networks. Both mobile and fixed networks in the UAE are very advanced when compared to those in most other countries around the world. The operators are also continuing to invest in developing innovative product and service offerings within the market and the TRA works hard to ensure that the regulatory environment supports this continued investment through being stable, transparent, and based upon internationally recognized best-practice principles.
You recently updated your methodology for collating local telecommunications statistics. Did the most recent report reveal any new trends?
The latest data published by the TRA is for January 2012. This showed that subscription levels for fixed, mobile, and internet services have continued to grow. For example, the total number of mobile subscribers at the end of January 2012 was 11.94 million. This represents an increase of 213,000 total mobile subscribers since the end of December 2011. The apparent decrease in penetration of all the telecommunications services was due to a change in methodology of how the TRA estimates the population of the UAE. For example, for mobile services the penetration fell from 199% in December 2011 to 149.1% in January 2012.
How advanced is the UAE, and Dubai specifically, in terms of fiber-optic connectivity?
The UAE has an extensive fiber footprint, not only in the densely populated areas but also in the less populated areas, with a strong commitment to roll out the fiber networks nationwide in the coming years. The fiber networks are a mixture of GPON-based FTTH/FTTB combined with intra-building copper cabling with ethernet topology. A variety of services is provided over fiber from residential services like voice, internet access, IPTV, business services, symmetric and asymmetric high-speed data connections, and MPLS-based VPN services. The two operators, Etisalat and du, are both rolling out their respective fiber networks in the UAE, although du has a historic footprint in certain areas in Dubai, whereas Etisalat covers the rest of the UAE.
What approach is being taken to establish a strong regional internet exchange?
The TRA has conducted extensive studies on Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) from technical, regulatory, and economical factors. The TRA recognized that establishing a regional IXP in the UAE would boost its position as an ICT leader and hub. The TRA has identified this project as one of the strategic projects for the industry. The TRA is working with the industry to establish the IXP in the UAE. The objective of this project is to promote public peering on internet traffic between carriers and operators based on international best practices. The establishment of the IXP will benefit the ICT industry and the consumer in terms of diversity in internet connectivity, performance, and price. The IXP technical setup is currently in the testing phase and will be launched soon.
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