Leadership Beyond Borders
One of the highlights of 2014 for the telecommunications industry and Bahrain came in the form of the 14th Global Symposium for Regulators (GSR14), which took place in the Kingdom of Bahrain under the auspices of the TRA. Organized by the ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau and hosted by the Government of Bahrain, under the patronage of HRH Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the Prime Minister, the GSR14 saw the assembly of the largest gathering of the global regulatory community in Manama. Over 700 leading specialists from 113 countries registered to attend the event, which also attracted approximately 80 leading participants, including government ministers, heads of regulatory agencies and industry chief executives. An important show of confidence in Bahrain and the TRA, GSR14 was a landmark event for the industry on a global level as it allowed for a review and working discussions of telecommunications developments and futuristic planning in addition to the conclusion of supportive agreements.
In keeping with the recommendations of the Third National Telecommunications Plan (3rd NTP), the TRA commenced the licence award process for 4G mobile services in early 2013, and by Q1 2013, both Batelco and Zain had launched their commercial Long-Term Evolution (LTE) services. To enable the provision of LTE based and any other services, in September 2013, additional spectrum have been allotted to the current three mobile operators via Managed Assigned Process.
The Consumer and The Future
2012 demonstrated a clear presence of progression. There were approximately 1.9 million mobile subscribers in Bahrain; representing a mobile penetration rate of 158%, as well as a gross turnover of BD406 million representing 4% of the Bahraini GDP. After the 3-year plan launched in 2009, it was time again to take a look at the regional and global telecom industry and evaluate Bahrain’s telecommunication advancements and future challenges.
Market leaders came together with the government once more, and we published the third National Telecommunications Plan to establish short and long term objectives. Focusing more on broadband initiatives and propelling the Internet as a center for business convergence, we saw e-commerce in the nation soar and global reach becoming more prominent. These actions drew attention to the telecoms model the Kingdom was using and the environment we had fostered, which created another success story in the form of the “e-Economy” award from the e-Government. 2012 culminated with the award of “Regulator of the Year” from CommsMEA commending all our advancements and our active role in cultivating Bahrain’s economy.
In 2011 the competitive barriers were eliminated with the successful launch of the “I love my number” campaign, promoting more freedom and churn in the market. This initiative provided the consumer with the flexibility and power to move where they felt they could benefit the most.
A significant advancement for the operators came in the form of the Loop Unbundling initiative (LLU). This provided operators with fair access to infrastructure services. With the Loop Unbundling initiative, we provided the necessary tools to all service providers and created more room for innovation by ensuring that there are no constraints for progress. The (LLU) also made sure that we provided fair and unbiased solutions for all operators in the market.
Moreover, our advancements continued their contribution to job creation. In 2011 approximately 2,700 employees worked directly in the telecoms sector. This showed a 50% growth in the number of employees since liberalization in 2003. Once again, our efforts were recognized by SAMENA Telecom council as a beacon of determination, transparency and positive impact; landing us with telecom regulator of the year award.
Educating the Public on Variety
The year 2010 proved to be lucrative in many respects. The launch of a third mobile operator in the kingdom was the most significant step towards open competition. STC (Saudi Telecommunications Company) launched VIVA; their arm into Bahrain, and the challenge of innovation was set in motion for the three existing operators. Each company went head to head; trying to launch the newest products and driving the telecommunication industry into dynamic growth. The new challenge propelled the importance of our role in the sector.
Between 2009 and 2010, the number of broadband subscribers increased by 19%. Now was the time to push education and clarity of the telecommunications world to the end user. The introduction of the online safety initiative “SafeSurf” provided an educational walkthrough of the Do’s and Don’t when surfing the Internet. This campaign maintained and attempted to grow the supportive relation- ship we had created with our consumers.
By 2009, we began to establish ourselves as a forward thinking authority; resulting in our efforts being regionally recognized by both CommsMEA and SAMENA Telecoms Council. This was when TRA Bahrain would stand out with The best and most progressive regulator of the year awards. These awards were acknowledgment for our efforts in regulating the market, introducing healthy competition and creating choice for our consumers throughout the years. The data provided in 2009 was a testament to our efforts in telecommunication. Mobile subscribers had increased steadily since 2005. By 2009, there were over 1.24 million mobile subscribers in the Kingdom of Bahrain from 300,000 in 2002. International traffic grew by 55% between 2008 and 2009, so the challenge at this point was to maintain this consistency and progression by opening up more channels of opportunity for the kingdom and its people.
One of these important steps was opening up the market for new mobile operator bids. The introduction of a third party provided a broader spectrum of telecommunications opportunities that were available to the public, a fact which encouraged operators to drive telecommunications innovation to greater heights. Another was to break the barriers of number portability which we began working towards at the end of the successful year. This way we could encourage the operators to perform at their best; guaranteeing greater value for the consumer.
In 2008, we updated our direction and published the second National Telecommunications Plan. Although there has been growth of 11.6% in total telecommunications revenues during this year, as well as 38% growth in the number of staff working in the telecommunications sector since liberalization in 2003; this document set out objectives for the Telecoms sector that needed to be implemented in the next three years. Removing barriers to competition, encouraging investment within the country, and developing a regulatory framework were just some ways we sought to make communication more efficient and reliable within the kingdom.
The telecom landscape began to change as the new National Telecommunications Plan set the primary objectives for the kingdom. the Strategic and Retail Market Review; published in 2007, set the milestones for the year and the market began to prepare itself as the prospect of a third mobile operator was on the horizon.
A Wireless Nation
2007 showed great signs of growth. Internet revenues rose 13% to 5.4 from 4.8 million, mobile penetration was 107% and Bahrain had one of the highest penetrations in the GCC comparing well with their European counterparts.
As Bahrain moved forward, the hunger for innovation in the telecommunication industry provided an opportunity for us to license two operators with national fixed wireless services successfully. This meant that with two more providers for national fixed services the market was injected once again with healthy competition and greater choice.
Year of The Consumer
From a base of BD152 million in 2003, the telecommunications industry generated over BD253 million in 2006; equivalent to annual average growth of about 20%. At this point, focus has shifted solely on targeting the needs of the consumer. Realizing the importance of the end user we wanted to provide a means of dialogue that encouraged active participation. When the campaign “Keep Asking” was launched, the consumer finally had a voice in the market. We initiated a consumer helpline where by all users could dial in directly and provide their honest feedback on matters that could not be solved by their operator. This awareness push created a 35% increase in call-ins compared to last year.
To keep the consumer’s voice heard and our performance consistent various panels were invited again for a review, making sure our focus was clear and that nothing could deviate us from our mission as a regulatory authority. The common goal of protection, fairness and transparency was being highlighted and referred to consistently. Also, as number of internet subscribers rose incredibly in 2006 to 38,628 from 21,432 in 2005, the idea of protection and education became something that we wanted to encourage when surfing the net.
In conjunction, we commissioned a Consumer Advisory Group to provide feedback on issues that the Bahraini consumer had. As consumer confidence soared, a more solid relationship began to surface between the public and the TRA.
Pushing connectivity and progress forward we granted the license to Bahrain Internet Exchange. Although Bahrain Internet Exchange (BIX) began to operate the kingdom’s Internet connection point in 2004, it’s full effects were felt in 2005. BIX acted as the hub for Internet connectivity and traffic within the kingdom. This license established an advanced, competitive offering in the kingdom aimed at reducing costs of connectivity and increasing Internet usage. Not only did these initiatives change the telecommunications market; it provided job opportunities for Bahraini residents which resulted in a 20% increase in the sector.
During this active year a panel of industry experts was commissioned to analyze and review our current performance. The panel recommended working towards a more robust framework to allow more access to new operators and increasing consumer protection by directly communicating to them. This is where we decided to bring consumer awareness to the forefront of our activities and we launched our first consumer campaign. Since mobile penetration in 2005 rose to from 57% to 81% this year, awareness amongst younger and older generations became crucial, so we moved to educate them about the uses of mobile phones.
With the plans set and the telecommunication market becoming more of a level play field, 2004 provided operators with an opportunity to shine. The launch of a second mobile operator in the Kingdom of Bahrain breathed new life into the market; providing consumers with the ability to choose. This historic move created a more transparent environment for all telecommunications stakeholders. The impact was extensively evident; mobile penetration rose from 45% to 57%, broadband internet penetration was at 20%, and fixed lines rose to 191,553 thousand. With a steady growth of revenue at 5% the role of telecommunications in the Kingdom of Bahrain became essential.
Interconnection was also an area of interest, since it was crucial for all operators to link to their networks. Without effective interconnection the subscribers of one network would not be able to communicate with another. This created a larger pool of cross network opportunity.
Keeping consumer interest at heart, we implemented the numbering initiative that introduced 8 digits to the public and laid the foundations for current and future expansion of lines. We also introduced the pre-carrier selection where by the consumer now had a choice to pick which carrier they wanted, and supported this by initiating educational telecoms campaigns to create awareness among the public. By July 2004, we could announce in confidence that the telecommunication sector had been fully liberalized, as we had met each of our milestones head on in a transparent manner.
With our launch, a newfound approach to the telecommunications industry was revealed. Our dealings brought about a clearer perspective to the oft-confusing world of telecom. We adopted an ‘Open Dialogue’ policy that encouraged interaction and feedback by exchanging ideas. Additionally, we simplified and clarified the processes in the sector, by making a lot of our information public. With fixed lines in the country growing from 175 thousand to 185 thousand in one year and mobile customer penetration at 45%, this approach aimed to build consumer trust through transparency.
The next step to create a healthy telecommunication environment was our implementation of the liberalization plan. This plan provided the country with an opportunity for economic advancement since different sectors could converge and create new business prospects, as well as more global exposure for Bahrain. We provided 18 licenses in the year; encouraging the growth of the telecommunication market to BD152 million and making it the fourth impactful industry in the country.
At the end of 2003 the second telecommunication operator license was granted; MTC-Vodafone began to function, and for the first time in Bahrain there was actual competition in telecommunications.
A crucial need for progress in the telecommunications sector arises, thus the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority was established, and the Telecommunications Law was implemented for the first time in Bahrain.