DATA, DATA, DATA

Oman 2017 | TELECOMS & IT | REVIEW: TELECOMS & IT

The transition to a knowledge-based information society lies at the heart of Oman's Vision 2020 and subsequent development toward Vision 2040.

Oman is effecting a wholesale transition to a networked society, at the heart of which sits the citizen-consumer, a process made possible by greater and increasingly secure connectivity. Oman Fiber Optic, a local firm with an annual production capacity of 14,000 to 18,000km, for one, is engaged in one of the region's largest oil and gas-telecoms projects, connecting over 7,000 wells using iMAWX technology. The challenge, though, is to spread the joy and economic potential throughout the Sultanate for wholesale and retail markets, thus sharing the fruits of the national vision.

Oman's ICT market per se is set for expansion floated by a rising, and more tech-savvy population, and also due to state measures to foster greater technological application and innovation among the nation's SMEs. This will result in greater demand for social, mobile, analytics, and cloud (SMAC) technologies, each demanding ever more stringent security against data theft and misuse. Already, Oman's Information Security Division (ISD) has implemented security measures for e-government services. And to mitigate the risk of wider attack on the nation's ICT infrastructure, the Sultanate has put into operation the National Computer Emergency Readiness Team (OCERT) that monitors potential online hazards.

Best in Show

Oman's digital aspirations are showcased at the annual COMEX exhibition, the Sultanate's primary ICT event. Its 27th outing takes place from March 28-April 1, 2017 at Oman's Convention and Exhibition Center. ICT, then, is not just a commercial reality, but also an essential paradigm shift to a digitalized economy.

The 'e' of... well, everything

These days, the provider of a service is increasingly considered as good as its accessibility online. This is equally the case for public-sector entities, chief among them the government. The e-Oman strategy is geared toward streamlining government channels for use by businesses, citizens, and residents alike, but moreover constitutes a template for sustainable national ICT sector growth.

e-government

The Information Technology Authority's (ITA) main role is to direct Oman's ICT application spanning government services, the ICT industry itself, the wider business arena, and the general public. May 2009 saw the launch of the official e-government service portal, and on June 12, 2012, the e-government Transformation Strategy saw cabinet approval, whereby all government agencies, including the ITA, were tasked with facilitating public interaction with the state, securely, and on demand. Jorgen Latte, the Acting CEO of telco Ooredoo, told TBY how the firm's investment over recent years “at over a 30%, capex-revenue ratio (exceeded) global telecoms standards of around 15-16%." This in large part enabled the company to secure “the contract for the government of Oman to provide its next generation high-speed network, which will be powering all e-government initiatives." The e-Oman strategy also features a national registration system through which citizens may access e-government services using a unique registration number to expedite inquiries.

e-payments

As the world becomes increasingly familiar with online retailing and banking, and inevitably less patient about delay, the need for swifter solutions has presented opportunities for such companies as ProgressSoft. Country Manager Anan Alwanni explained how its e-payment projects are “being implementing on a national level (as) part of the Central Bank of Oman vision." The company in 2009, “went live with our electronic image-based check clearing solution (...) that enables banks to exchange images of cheques between each other to clear funds within minutes."

e-healthcare

Oman's Al Shifa Health System in use by the Ministry of Health is a comprehensive healthcare information management system that provides essential data on users, while rendering effective solutions at healthcare facilities.

e-who's here, and what are they up to

Oman's National Centre for Statistics & Information (NCSI), a key component of the Emirate's information economy, is working on the means to conduct the e-Census of 2020.

Broadband

As of July 2016 Oman had 3,310,260 internet users, on a penetration rate of 71.1% (35.8% in 2010), marking a 4.1 % YoY rise. Dial up internet subscribers shrank 6.9% for the period to 2,581. By contrast, total fixed broadband subscribers saw a marked 16.9% rise to 272,691, compared with 233,233 subscribers as of July 2016. Awasr was Oman's pioneering corporate force behind specialized high-speed internet delivery. Its arrival, in March of 2016 alone, underlines the recent surge in Oman's technology backbone, and was prompted by the Emirate's National Broadband Strategy (NBS), a component of Oman Vision 2020 and subsequent Vision 2040. CEO Al Fadhal, in conversation with TBY, explained how the firm has been awarded a “Class 1 License by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) of Oman, enabling us to provide public and fixed line, voice and data services to consumers and businesses across the Sultanate." Awasr offers the greatest premium broadband speed in Oman, of 1 GB/s per second. Yet broadband is a bit of a sore point in the Emirate, where penetration has remained rather low by regional standards due to the challenges Al Fadhal outlined. “The market in Oman is very small, with about five million people, (which) makes for tough competition." Furthermore, “due to the demography and low density of seven to 10 people per sqkm, investments in remote areas are very expensive (whereby) the broadband industry in Oman is still greenfield."

Meanwhile, according to Dr. Salim Al Ruzaiqi, CEO of the ITA, “The best thing to happen to broadband in Oman was the establishment of the Oman Broadband Company (OBC), (which has taken) advantage of all of infrastructure projects such as the sewer system, electricity, and water to construct a fiber network at the same time." Four entities compete to offer fiber to the home (FTTH), and by 2020 it is estimated that around 85% of capital city Muscat will have been covered. Indeed, Said Al-Mandhari, CEO of OBC, which is tasked by the TRA to “commercialize the fiber-optic infrastructure," earmarks 30% coverage beyond Muscat by that date. OBC “currently (provides) services on a wholesale basis to licensed operators and government entities in Oman."

Trends in Telephony...

Darren Tong, Acting CEO & CFO of Telecom Oman (TeO), makes the valid point that, “Telecom companies are economic multipliers by their nature, (whereby) the infrastructure and solutions provided by us, along with ease of access (cost vs. coverage), will go a long way in determining how easy it is to do business and procure services in Oman." The latter, of course, is the primary consideration for Oman in terms of attracting FDI and better integrating the private sector into the economy. TeO plans to bid for the third mobile network operator license in Oman.

...Spell Greater Competition

As CEO of Omantel, Talal Bin Saeed Bin Marhoon Al Mamari, put it, “The prospect of a third Mobile Network Operator (MNO) license (in Oman) will mean that the number of players in a 4.5 million market will actually be five if we count the two active mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs - holding a c.16% market share)." The latter are wireless communications services providers that do not own the wireless network infrastructure. As he points out, the trend is for third operators in a mobile market normally to compete on price. Yet while such a strategy clearly impacts telcos' balance sheets, expanded take-up ultimately obliges stronger providers to compete on content.

Fixed Telephone Lines

This segment had risen 5.4% YoY in 9M2016, where the total number, including post- and pre-paid lines, public pay telephones, ISDN channels, VoIP, and WLL connections had risen 5.4% by NCSI numbers. Fixed postpaid connections climbed 7.8% to 350,290 lines, while prepaid lines had risen 11.1% to 62,227 by end-September 2016. VoIP lines, posted a slight third-quarter appreciation to 540 lines from 529 lines in July.

Mobile

As everywhere else in the world, with average revenue per user (ARPU) on the decline in mobile telephony, data is king, in turn fueling the smartphone market as more people wonder what they're missing out on, and as handset prices become more affordable. Globally, there are 5.1 billion mobile subscribers, with 84 million new subscriptions being registered in 3Q2016. In fact, in the world today, smartphones account for 55% of total mobile subscriptions, where LTE (4G) continues its upward trajectory, registering 160 million new subscriptions in 3Q2016. In 2012 global smartphone users exceeded the 1 billion mark, and a year later Oman had topped the GCC league.

Oman's mobile penetration is at 151%, and the total mobile subscriber base (post and prepaid) in the Sultanate logged an uptick of 2.1% to exceed 6.78 million subscriptions as of 9M2016 from 6.64 million as the start of 2016. Post-paid mobile connections rose 4.1% to 609,234 as of end-3Q2016 from 585,166 connections at the start of 1Q2016. And in a familiar trend in middle-income economies, prepaid mobile subscriptions rose by 1.9% to 6.17 million from 6.06 million at the start of 2016.

ICT Service Sector Growth

Declining ARPU mentioned earlier is a point alighted on by Alain Sawaya, a Board Member and Managing Partner of Oman Data Park. In fact, the tendency has precipitated the marked shift in the telco sector from operator to broad ICT provider. Accordingly, the company has “created a tier-3 data center on an area of approximately 1,200sqft (with) 1.8MW of UPS power and 4.2MW of total power, including cooling and electricity (all) built up to European, US, and international standards." The company hosts international corporates including Shell and BP, as well as cost-effectively meeting the data center needs of seven of Oman's 11 banks. A helping hand is perhaps even more welcome by Oman's SMEs, which benefit from discounted rates for the ICT platforms necessary for growth.

Oman is leveraging ICT to make its commercial offering more appealing to the investor community. And meanwhile, businesses, citizens, and residents alike are better able to access a diversity of services, swiftly and securely on the virtual plain. In short, the Sultanate is well on its way to becoming the information society presaged by successive economic and social plans.