LET'S GET DIGITAL

Oman 2015 | TELECOMS & IT | REVIEW: TELECOMS & IT

A rapid rise in all forms of ICT penetration over the past decade has revolutionized Oman and is transforming the Sultanate into a regional leader for the sector.

Oman is deep in the throes of a modern revolution—in information and communications technology. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, through a mix of steady government guidance and private sector initiative, the Sultanate is becoming one of the most linked-in nations in the region, if not the wider world. According to official statistics from the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), in 2013 there were 5.61 million mobile subscribers in the Sultanate and the mobile penetration rate was at 155.05%. There were 351,411 fixed telephone lines with a penetration rate (per 100 inhabitants) of 9.7% and 158,678 fixed internet lines. The government's own NCSI statistical service reported 2.44 million mobile broadband users in 2013, with an active mobile broadband penetration rate of 67.44%. According to figures compiled by the Internet World Stats service, there were 2.14 million internet users in Oman in the month of December 2013, and 584,900 Facebook subscribers, with a penetration rate of 18.9% for the popular social media site. The same service reported that in August 2014 Omani users enjoyed an average 10.8 Mbps broadband download speed.

According to Reuters, the total value of the Omani IT market in 2012 was $363 million, up from an estimated $339 million in 2011. The research agency BMI forecasts a compound annual growth rate of 6% for 2012-2016. Oman's economy is relatively well positioned, but analysts do not see IT spending returning to its previous rate of growth before 2016. Meanwhile, global trends such as cloud computing, virtual media, and other IT advances are all making inroads into the Omani market. Oman is trying to reduce the oil sector's contribution to national GDP to 9% by 2020, and to achieve this goal Oman is courting further foreign investment in the IT sector to move toward this goal.

HE Ahmed Mohammed Salem Al-Futaisi, Oman's Minister of Transport & Communications, reports that the telecom sector has grown steadily and has shown modest upward trends during 2013. He told TBY that both of Oman's major telecoms operators—Omantel and Ooredoo—showed growth in revenues and earnings when compared to 2011-2012 results. The industry posted growth of 9.7% in active mobile subscribers and 6% in fixed-line subscriptions over 2013. While Oman's IT market is only approximately 10% the size of the Saudi market, the government is investing heavily in IT as part of its eOman initiative, the strategy to diversify the economy and provide computers for schools and training centers.

The Omani Information Technology Authority (ITA) is the government department responsible for implementing national IT infrastructure projects and supervising projects related to the implementation of the official Digital Oman Strategy while providing professional leadership to the public and private sectors. The ITA serves as a competency center on best practices, integrating processes and improving efficiency in ITC service delivery. Training and oversight are essential priorities as well. According to Dr. Salim Sultan Al Ruzaiqi, CEO of the ITA, over 46,000 people were trained in IT institutes in 2013, and more than 200 people were trained in the new Sas Center for virtual reality. As well, over 160,000 PCs were distributed among students and teachers. The ITA launched the Sas program—in colloquial Omani Arabic, Sas means foundation—as an ICT business development initiative and a business incubator designed to help SMEs build a robust ICT sector in Oman. According to the government, Sas also aims to create a business support model that will help to develop these enterprises into globally competitive ICT businesses. Sas already has 12 projects, of which nine are being fully incubated and three are in the pre-incubation phase.

Beyond its own focus on becoming a digital society, Oman is keen to play a central regional role, and Oman's GCC cooperation through the ITU experienced a boost earlier in 2014 with the launch of the Regional Cyber Security Centre for the Arab region. The ITU Regional Centre aims to provide Arab countries with the required support to establish their national cyber-security centers and assist them with cyber services at regional and international levels. The whole GCC area is connected through the Gulf Bridge International (GBI) cable system, the Middle East's first privately owned submarine cable system. In 2011, work was completed on the GBI cable system connections within the Gulf; the cable network has connection stations in Oman, Bahrain, India, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Moreover, in a bid to foster closer international collaboration in ICT, Oman and Singapore signed an agreement in 2014 to deliver innovative digital services for the Oman Ministry of Manpower. According to The Times of Oman, the agreement is part of Oman's eGovernment transformation plan, which seeks to automate internal processes and procedures within government agencies, and ultimately bring about better government services to end users, and greater efficiency within the Omani government. Through the Official eGovernment Services Portal, citizens can access government information and services online. These services are provided via the Official eGovernment Services Portal “Omanuna," which links government departments or provides links to their websites.

TUNED IN, POWERED UP

Digital literacy in the nation has improved tangibly over the past decade. According to an ICT survey in Oman published in December 2012, a clear majority (61%) of government employees now have proficient ICT skills. Around 66% of all PCs across surveyed government offices are connected to the internet, and more than 73% of these computers have fixed broadband. The telecommunications sector in Oman has seen a 92% increase in the number of mobile phone subscribers, and the majority of these devices are smartphones that can access services online. PC penetration in Oman has now reached around 66%, up from just over 52% in 2010. Mobile penetration had increased by 9% in 2012-2013 to 190 units for every 100 inhabitants. Active mobile broadband penetration increased to 52% at the beginning of 2013 from 39% at the beginning of 2012.

The Sultanate has also made great strides in educating women in ICT. Innovative programs such as the Women's Community Knowledge Centre, launched in 2011, have a total of nine centers opened in different regions and districts. These centers are equipped with computers and other modern peripherals that allow for access to the internet, and deliver a number of specially designed educational programs. To date, around 100,000 people including those with disabilities, have been trained through Community IT Training initiatives, Government IT Training and Certification programs, and special IT training as part of community capacity-building initiatives such as the above-mentioned Women's Community Knowledge Centers.

Other examples of eGovernment training and innovation programs are abundant. For example, the National PC Initiative has delivered more than 90,000 PCs and 72,000 free modems for internet access to families, students, and teachers. The ITA holds an e-organized Road Safety Day in an effort to promote safe driving, and the necessary precautions to reduce risks and injuries suffered by drivers and passengers in traffic accidents. Held every year on October 1, the day begins with employees receiving safety awareness messages via their mobile phones and emails, and posted on the internal ITA website. Another initiative allows citizens and residents possessing smartphones to order their gas cylinders from a mobile application being launched in late 2014.

Moreover, new legislation is also being rolled out to manage growth in ICT systems, and their economic and wider social effects. The Omani General Digital Legislation codes address key issues such as: e-Law, intellectual property rights, taxation and data protection, legal recognition for electronic signatures, electronic payments, jurisdictional matters, the enforcement of “electronic" contracts, and protection of privacy and security, among others. From the highest levels of government, to the man in the souk, ICT is transforming daily life in Oman.

LAYING CABLE

Oman has established itself as the focal point of the region for the provision of submarine cables and landing stations. The whole GCC area is connected through the Gulf Bridge International (GBI) cable system, which is the Middle East's first privately owned submarine cable system. The GBI Cable System was established in December 2008 with an initial investment of $445 million. In 2011, work was completed on the GBI cable system connections within the Gulf; the cable network has connection stations in Oman, Bahrain, India, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The Omani partnership with GBI is the latest in a number of agreements that the government and private sector operators have made with international companies as the Sultanate rolls out its program to be a pivotal ICT hub for the region. Launched in 2012 and designed to operate for up to 25 years, the GBI cable system will connect all the Gulf countries via a core ring, which is capable of re-routing traffic, reliably delivering data, and offering increased resilience. The system has a design capacity of up to 5 terabits per second on some cable sections, and the GBI cable system possesses the capability of meeting the rapid growth in demand for traffic routing through the GCC area. GBI, in its own statement, summed up the geo-strategic importance of this placement, pointing out that, “Oman's location at the entrance to the Gulf, where the majority of international subsea cables meet, is strategically important," as it facilitates information traffic access to both Asia and Europe. The well-known Omani telecoms operator Nawras—rebranded in late 2014 as Ooredoo—has has also linked up with the Indian owned Tata Global Network. In April 2011, a ship-based operation laid the necessary cables on the seabed off the coast of Oman. Its specialists analyzed exactly where to land the cables, which were then dropped from the ship into the water in what was an exceedingly precise procedure. This vital submarine cable links Oman to Mumbai, where it connects up with Tata's own system of international connections, allowing a direct and reliable connection to nearly every other country on the planet.