CONSUMERS IN MIND

UAE, Abu Dhabi 2014 | TELECOMS & IT | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to HE Mohamed Nasser Al Ghanim, Director General of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, on the UAE as an ICT hub, promoting healthy competition in the sector, and the expected effects of mobile number portability.

The Telecommunications Regulation Authority (TRA) is tasked with ensuring the UAE becomes a regional ICT hub. How would you evaluate your performance so far?

The TRA is building the core ICT regulatory framework for the UAE's burgeoning knowledge economy and it regulates the UAE's telecommunications sector to ensure that competition provides affordable and reliable telecommunications services. The TRA licensed Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Corporation (du) as the UAE's second national operator in 2006. Since commencing service delivery in 2007, du has largely focused on the mobile communications market and, by the end of 2012, it had secured almost 50% of the mobile market in terms of subscriber numbers. The positive effects of competition in the UAE telecommunications sector are now being witnessed by customers, who enjoy some of the lowest mobile tariffs in the GCC. In terms of fixed-line telecommunications services, the UAE has some of the most advanced networks in the world with a very high penetration of fiber to home connections over which the licensees deliver innovative triple-play (voice, internet, and TV) services to customers. The policies of the TRA and the advanced networks deployed in the UAE enable modern UAE society to function with a high level of connectivity and affordable and reliable telecommunications services. In short, I am proud of the TRA's performance so far.

What role must the TRA and the telecommunications sector play in Abu Dhabi's strategy to become a diversified business center by 2030?

The TRA must continue to support the development of the industry while promoting the interests of end-users. Supporting the development of the sector will ensure that the licensees continue to invest in new technologies and innovative service offerings. This is vital to ensuring businesses in Abu Dhabi take advantage of high-quality ICT infrastructure that may, in turn, give them a competitive advantage in the markets they compete in. Furthermore, by promoting the interests of end-users, we can ensure that they receive good value for their ICT spending. Overall, it is important that the TRA continues to provide a balanced, impartial response to the needs of all stakeholders; the government, the licensees, and the consumers.

“Instead of focusing on the number of licensees, we should focus on what is being delivered."

Is there room for another mobile carrier?

We should think of quality and not quantity. So, instead of focusing on the number of licensees, we should focus on what is being delivered. The UAE has one of the highest degrees of mobile penetration in the world. We also have some of the lowest mobile tariffs. World-leading technology—4G(LTE)—is deployed on both networks and is widely accessible in the UAE—and from the TRA's consumer surveys we know that users generally have a high degree of satisfaction with the services supplied to them. At this point in time, the TRA has no plans to issue further mobile licenses. The TRA is happy with the way that the mobile market has developed and notes that the sector displays highly competitive characteristics. Having said that, the regulatory framework is an evolving process and, as such, the TRA constantly reviews the effectiveness of competition to ensure that the structure of the market remains appropriate.

Many internet users still connect by dial-up because of the prices attached to broadband plans. Is there an opportunity here for regulation to improve services and prices for consumers?

The TRA supervises the development of the UAE's online infrastructure and has enabled the UAE to become one of the world's most connected societies with 72% of households having access to broadband internet. The TRA is working closely with the licensees to implement a form of network sharing known as bit stream access. This will increase competition in the fixed services market and exert downward pressure on a range of fixed-line services, including broadband.

Just recently companies have been sharing their dark fiber networks. How will this improve services for customers?

Such arrangements are been carried out as a result of commercial negotiations between the parties involved. The TRA is not involved in these negotiations and is unaware of such agreements. Nonetheless, the TRA considers that dark fiber sharing, as with other forms of infrastructure sharing, can reduce the costs of service provision, which has the potential to reduce prices. This is an outcome that the TRA is seeking to achieve through other regulatory measures such as the introduction of the bit stream access service.

The TRA has been running the “My Number, My Identity" program over past few months. Could you tell us a little bit about the program, and why it is encouraged?

This campaign is in line with our continuous efforts to protect the interests and privacy of mobile users, and is based on studies and surveys that indicated an increase in civil and criminal cases. These are due to some mobile subscribers giving away their SIM cards to other users who may misuse the number, resulting in serious legal or financial issues for the actual owners. The TRA took several steps to organize registration processes and requirements for mobile phone services provided by the two licensees. The TRA launched the “My Number, My Identity" campaign in collaboration with the licensees, aiming to increase awareness of the new registration procedures. The campaign highlights the importance of the mobile subscribers' role in protecting their SIM cards. These should not be given out to other users in order to avoid any misuse that may occur, as the registered owner of the number will be legally and financially accountable.

In the coming months Yahsat will start to enter the local market as a broadband provider. What is the role of the TRA in protecting this new company from being priced out by Etisalat and Du?

The TRA supports the UAE's ICT sector by safeguarding competition to protect the interests of subscribers, enhancing the readiness of e-services, and encouraging investment, innovation, and development. The TRA has a range of regulatory measures in place designed to protect competition and to prevent licensees from subjecting other licensees to anti-competitive conduct. For example, the TRA's Competition Safeguards Regulatory Policy, dated September 30, 2010, prohibits the misuse of market power including, among other things, predatory pricing, margin squeezing, and discrimination against competitors. The TRA also has a price approval policy whereby licensees must submit any proposed prices to the TRA for advanced approval. This includes all price changes for existing services and prices for new services. The TRA reviews the proposed prices with a view to ensuring that, among other things, the prices implemented within the market are not anti-competitive and will not have a detrimental impact on competition. In addition, the TRA is currently working on a project to define a set of competition remedies for markets in which one or both of the operators have been identified as having market power.

The TRA has encouraged telecoms providers to introduce mobile number portability (MNP). Why is this important?

MNP will allow the customers to retain their mobile number when switching network operators, and this will give them the freedom to choose their preferred network operator without worrying about their number changing. At the same time, MNP will enhance competition among network operators, and hence it would enhance services. MNP will be to the benefit of the end customer in general.

At a recent GCC meeting the TRA proposed the creation of the .arab domain name. What potential does this have?

The internet today has labels representing countries. The League of Arab States and the TRA envision .arab to serve the entire Arab region. It shall create new opportunities for businesses and individuals unifying us on the internet. We are at the birth of a new beginning and we are going to fully support it. We believe .arab has very strong potential for success.

© The Business Year - April 2013