Mohammed Ali Al-Mannai, president of Qatar’s Communications Regulatory Authority, details the body’s plans to promote fixed line competition and protect the interests of consumers and operators
Qatar's Communications Regulatory Authority has certainly been busy since coming into existence just two years ago. According to its president, Mohammed Ali Al-Mannai, its activities to date build on its predecessor's work to maintain a buoyant and growing telecommunications sector, protect consumer rights and create a robust regulatory and legal framework that supports the development of the sector.
"Key among the initiatives is the development of a Competition Policy Framework in 2015 aimed at creating a stable environment in which market participants understand under what circumstances CRA will undertake investigations into anti-competitive behavior – targeted at segments that pose challenges in delivery of effective competition and good outcomes for consumers," says Al-Mannai.
"A quality of service (QoS) framework is nearly complete so that the performance obligations of networks and service providers are clear. Terms and conditions for access to and/or sharing of civil infrastructure have been put in place."
A key area of focus for the organisation now is the fixed segment. "In addition, CRA is focusing on regulation in wholesale markets to decrease retail regulation, which is expected to benefit the fixed sector, in particular, and to reproduce some of the steady growth in the mobile sector," Al-Mannai continues. "In terms of enforcement mechanisms, CRA has published the dispute resolution procedures that establish a regulatory framework to fairly and efficiently investigate and resolve disputes between access providers and access seekers."
In 2014, soon after it assumed the role previously performed by ictQATAR, the CRA put in place a Consumer Protection Policy that brought together the pre-existing obligations of service providers and added a set of new obligations. These aim to ensure that operators compete fairly and that consumers can make informed purchasing decisions with confidence.
The policy has established a core set of consumer protection rules that are binding on the service providers, along with a complaints process that enables customers to seek redress from an entity that is independent of service providers.
A code of advertising, marketing and branding, released a little over a year ago, is designed to protect consumers from misleading and unfair practices by telecommunications service providers. Over the last two years, the CRA has pulled up both telcos over adverts deemed misleading. The CRA says it's also actively involved in resolving complaints that consumers haven’t been able to resolve with their service providers.
In January this year, it announced that it has resolved around 90% of 1,135 complaints received over the course of 2015, with the other 10% still under investigation.
"The role of the regulator – through a broad range of regulatory and enforcement mechanisms – is to create the right robust regulatory and legal framework that ensures that consumers get innovative and high quality services at reasonable prices and that service providers are held to a very high standard in terms of quality of service," says Al-Mannai, addressing the question of what the regulator's role should be.
"I would add that many initiatives we have undertaken – including the development of a competition policy and a quality of services framework speaks to our desire to put in place a sustainable ecosystem where consistency and clarity ensures that Qatar will continually enhance its rich landscape of services."
Those hoping, however, for the licensing of more operators in Qatar's telecomms sector may have to wait a little longer. "Competition in the mobile sector has strongly developed, with mobile revenue continuing to provide the greatest proportion of revenue and growth in the market," Al-Mannai says, in response to a question on the prospect of more operators being licensed.
"Competition has also brought significant uptake in mobile data services. Competition in the fixed sector has yet to fully emerge, which will impact the future growth of that sector.
The focus on regulation in wholesale markets is expected to benefit the fixed sector, in particular, and to reproduce some of the steady growth seen in the mobile sector. We continually monitor the competitiveness of the sector to ensure it remains sustainable."
Headline figures show a telecomms market that remains in good health, certainly in revenue terms. Total market revenue in 2015 increased by more than 10% for the third consecutive year and is expected to touch QR 10 billion when final results are analysed.
Both service providers have also continued to invest significantly in their networks with the launch of LTE/LTE+ networks in 2014 and 2015. Fibre broadband connection speeds now reach up to 100 Mbps with a majority of buildings connected to fibre.
The regulator has also worked with regulators in other Gulf countries to try to reduce intra-GCC roaming charges.
The CRA has put in place the necessary regulatory instruments to ensure the effective implementation of the regulators' decisions.
The CRA president is happy with the range and quality of mobile services available in the country, but says there is more scope for improvement in fixed business to business services. "In B2B services, prices have remained high, including prices of international connectivity, IP virtual private networking (VPN) and Internet VPN," he says.
"The fixed residential sector has continued to grow, but prices remain high, limiting uptake of more advanced services. Still, Qatar has one of the highest fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) penetration rates in the world, with roughly 95% of households passed."
In an effort to find out what customers want, the CRA conducted a survey of Qatar's telecomms user base. The survey was conducted for the CRA by AMRB, an independent market research firm, and helped gain more insight into consumers’ level of satisfaction with their telecommunications services.
Amongst the findings, 22% of those surveyed said prices were low or very low; 12% said prices were high or very high and 65% found services to be moderately priced. Residents categorised as ‘mainstream’ had a more favourable perception of pricing than residents defined as ‘transient’ in the survey.
"The survey found that while a majority of telecommunications users in the country are generally satisfied with the quality of service provided by their service providers, pricing, rate plans, and complaint resolution were cited as key areas for improvement," explains Al Mannai. "In addition, about one-fifth of consumers surveyed believe prices of various services in Qatar to be low or very low. Consumers believe international calling and roaming charges to be particularly expensive."
The findings, he says, have been shared with Ooredoo and Vodafone, which have expressed a willingness to work with CRA to address challenges and concerns highlighted by consumers in the survey. In addition, audits of the two providers' mobile services are conducted to verify compliance with coverage obligations and to benchmark the quality of service offered. "The audits show some areas of improvement and other areas where quality has declined," the president says.
Fibre broadband connections have now surpassed copper in the country, with 10 Mbps download speeds as a minimum. Ooredoo’s fibre network is expected to cover the whole of Qatar by the end of 2016. Both mobile service providers have launched 4G/LTE and LTE+ networks.
THe CRA's most recent big initiative is the Civil Passive Infrastructure Access Regulation. Issued by the Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA) in June 2015, it was published in the Official Government Gazette on November 29, 2015. The regulation establishes general obligations governing access to passive civil infrastructure required to support the delivery of telecommunications services in the country.
"This regulation sets out minimum terms and conditions under which a provider will make the passive civil infrastructure available to those seeking access, as well as the terms and conditions the seeker must meet," explains Al-Mannai. "The regulation also has provisions for monitoring and ensuring compliance.
The regulation is a result of consultations with stakeholders and aims to help resolve access-related issues and provide clarity on what infrastructure can be accessed. The regulation establishes the obligations of the access providers and access seekers and sets out the minimum terms and conditions to ensure all provisions are non-discriminatory in terms of product, price, process, and quality.
The regulation covers diverse infrastructure, including ducts, manholes, cable trays, telecom towers, masts, collocation facilities, cooling units, back-up generators, and electrical power connections. It stipulates clear guidelines on how a request for access must be initiated and processed. It specifies how the CRA will deal with non-compliance issues.
Al-Mannai sees telecomms as the wider enabler of ICT and is keen to see the telcos move towards offering enterprise, cloud and managed services. In fact, the CRA says it has a mandate to facilitate access to digital media and believes it's one of the very few regulators in the region with that kind of brief.
"We are evaluating our role in implementing this mandate, while addressing the challenges faced by telecommunication service providers, especially with their existing business models," Al-Mannai elaborates. "They are evaluating and evolving their business models based on continual changes in the businesses and products. CRA looks forward to addressing these changes and supporting new business models in a manner fair to consumers and service providers."