Bocar A. BA, CEO of SAMENA telecommunications council. Bocar A. BA, CEO of SAMENA telecommunications council.






Under the patronage of TRA UAE, the South Asia - Middle East - North Africa (SAMENA) region’s annual ICT leadership event, SAMENA Telecommunications Council's Leaders' Summit called upon the industry to set new aspirations and counter challenges to make the digital world more inclusive and constructive. CommsMEA spoke to the CEO of SAMENA telecommunications council, Bocar A. BA to get an unbiased perspective on the state of affairs in the telecommunications industry.

Needless to say, the ICT environment has changed drastically with the integration of IT and telecommunications. Irrespective of whether it’s vision 2020 or 2030, the prime objective is to bring the public and private sector in harmony in order to effectively execute the digital agenda. SAMENA council, as a non-profit organisation, is engaged in fostering this collaboration and aligning the plans of diverse stakeholders towards a digital society with a win-win situation for customers, the public sector and the private sector companies.

Bocar says: “The role that we are playing is that of aligning the visions. By making customer satisfaction or happiness the common denominator, I believe we can build bridges between the private and the public sector. We bring value to the discussion while ensuring that the policy makers and regulators aren’t destroying value creation.”

He stresses that the biggest success story of the council so far has been in managing to bring the public and the private sector together as one entity to work with other industries towards digital inclusion. While traditionally telecom operators went to regulators to seek more spectrum or less taxes, the debate has now gone way beyond that. The focus now is to integrate other sectors like finance, transportation, healthcare and education with the ICT industry so that all-pervasive digitisation can be achieved. The role of ICT has changed from being an accessory to becoming the enabler of diverse sectors.

While everyone might be speaking of digital transformation, one thing we need to accept is that it’s not going to be a smooth road. As Bocar tells us, there are several challenges organisations will need to work their way around. Borders have become blurred and as a result, there are global players like Google and Facebook, operating alongside the local players like governments and telcos. The scenario definitely is nowhere close to a level playing field- the next level of regulations will need to take this into account so that the collaboration is a harmonious one.

The second challenge is the integration and the inclusion of other industries. The financial sector has one regulator, while the ICT sector has another. The convergence of regulatory policies is a requirement, while the path to the same might have a lot of turmoil.

Keeping these challenges in foresight, the private sector needs to transform its business model. Simultaneously, regulation also has to be transformed to be able to cope with this new agenda. Considering the loss of revenues for telecom operators, lack of a level playing field and conflicting regulations, the transformation of the industry is going to be an uphill task.

In the whole scenario, one wonders how the telcos are positioned. The discussion obviously moves instantly to the declining voice revenues in the data driven economy. The telcos have to grow and be profitable; however, efforts to monetise data haven’t been sufficient yet to offset the loss of voice revenues. Data is going to keep increasing; so in order to thrive amidst this frenzy, operators would require a sustainable business model that focusses on the needs of the data-driven society and diversification of the telco portfolio beyond voice, and data packages.

Further, Bocar draws attention to the need of telcos for borderless regulation. If an operator has operations across several countries, borderless regulation is a necessity for enabling its growth plans. Another issue of imminent concern for telcos is taxation. “We are in a region where most of the governments are inclined to develop an economy that’s not based on oil. So, how can we make sure that the operators remain profitable so they can keep investing into the industry, the digital agenda and the same time they are losing revenue?”, questions Bocar.

In spite of all the dark clouds, there is a silver lining. As is obvious from the vision that has been laid out by several governments in the region, the ICT sector already is and has a lot more potential too to have a significant impact on the nations’ GDP. The road to that is going to be strongly focussed on innovation and collaboration.  Bocar points out that the solution is centred around a constant dialogue between the public and the private sector. Innovation and growth are going to continue; however, organisations also need to discover and work around the low-hanging fruits, collaborate in various ways, and align their agendas. “We can’t afford to have the private and public sector going opposite ways,” Bocar says.

SAMENA council focusses on four different pillars, that it believes will bring the diverse stakeholders together to work towards the common objective of a digitally connected economy. These four pillars are integration of more and more sectors into the realm of digital services; strong emphasis on data regulation; engagement with ministries of finance of different countries on the topic of taxation and levies; and of course, regulation of spectrum fees and harmonisation in order to be ready for 5G and the internet of things.

Towards creating a level playing field for the local and global players, Bocar says that the SAMENA council has made the efforts to end the fight between the telcos, regulators on one side and the internet players on the other. The internet players are here to stay. Bocar adds: “They are the problem but they are part of the solution as well. So they have to be invited to the table of discussion. We need to have brainstorming, and capacity building with them.”