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.”
And of course, the reality stays that there can be no application unless there’s connectivity. So, it’s not in the interest of the internet players to see the operators going down. “We have to work together. We need to enable partnership which is the key word in the solution. It has to be an efficient public-private-people partnership. There’s an ongoing dialogue and today it’s healthy. We are not in a fighting mood rather we are in a collaboration mood. I believe that can lead to success,” says Bocar.
When asked about what’s going to bring about the next phase of profitability for telecom operators, Bocar says the strategy will need to be centred on the citizen. To enable various services, operators would need to guarantee resilient connectivity, ubiquity of the network, and quality of service. There needs to be a continuation of the operators’ investment in 4G networks.
Services have to be very innovative and bundled effectively. All operators are working on it. “Today we have realised that no one owns the customer”, Bocar says. With the large number of services and offers available, operators have to work harder to retain the customer. The key is in high quality of service, and customisation of the offers. Moreover, ubiquity of service has a relatively higher significance in this region, given there is a lot of travel around here. When people travel from one country to another, they wish to be able to enjoy the high level of service standards to be maintained.
Yet another pressing issue on the present date is the fact that in spite of around 90% of the world being covered already by network (submarine, terrestrial or mobile), there still is a major chunk of the world population without any access to internet. Bocar says: “It doesn’t mean that we aren’t capable; it means that we aren’t stimulating the demand enough.” That being said, he adds that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done by the policy makers, government, and others to educate the population about the beauty of the internet and the usefulness and excitement of being connected.
There’s no point in having an extensive service portfolio unless there is proper use of the services. There should be more promotions about the services, in order to stimulate the demand. The barriers to stimulating the demand could be for example, affordability of handsetsfor the mass population. “Digitisation is about having access to the connected devices. We need to promote why we should use the internet or how internet will absolutely change the life of the citizens,” says Bocar. As more and more people access the internet, the operators’ revenues will go up. There onwards, the operators will have to work on packaging the services well, developing capabilities for new businesses, and making profits out of those.
Bocar highlights how the SAMENA council is working with the governments to ensure there are the right regulatory policies in place. He elaborates how the right regulations would encourage operators to invest, that would further imply technology providers would be able to sell their solutions, consultants will put in place plans of action and the whole industry will move forward.
For that the SAMENA council works on a multi-stakeholder platform comprising all the disruptive players like OTTs and internet players, alongwith the telcos, technology providers, academia, governments, and regulators. The idea is to develop and share intellectual property. By sharing knowledge, best practices and experience, and promoting better governance and transparency, the different stakeholders can work productively together to foster growth.
Explaining how the SAMENA council functions with an example of a nationwide broadband project, Bocar says that the council works to make sure that the government has put in place a proper national broadband plan to ensure that the whole population is going to be connected. In terms of regulations, the council helps regulators advance some of the existing regulation in the light of the new project. “Regulation is very important. In an environment where there’s no regulation, you can’t raise or secure investment” adds Bocar. The SAMENA council works not just with the regional regulators, but also international bodies like the ITU and GSMA to address the various issues pertaining to the connectivity ecosystem.
Talking of connectivity and data, telcos are often accused of sitting on a gold mine of data without actually doing anything about it. However Bocar says that’s not completely true. According to him, big data is a relatively new concept. Operators need to monetise the big data and leverage it for profitability. Knowing the customer will definitely help customise the experience in a better way. However, he adds that the primary job of an operator is to be a carrier. Partnerships with relevant companies would enable better monetisation of the data.
Another hurdle on the way is a lack of consensus so far on the format of data. “Discussions are going on whether we are going to have a harmonised format so that all the industries can make use of it. Once we agree on the format, and the use of the data, then only we can work on the monetisation of the data,” Bocar says.
Commenting on the market scenarios in the region, Bocar says that the GCC is a quite fairly harmonised, stable market, with relatively high ARPU. North African market is relatively more fragmented in terms of infrastructure availability and buying power. Though the exact gaps might differ across the regions, the issues for the operators are mostly same throughout. There are problems to deal with, although, the operators are doing a good job so far, Bocar believes. He argues that had it not been the case, they wouldn’t sustain in the tough competition out there. Ultimately, the truth is that voice revenues will decline, data is the new oil, taxes will need to be paid and internet players will stay. The key is to foster increased collaboration, and further diversification of the services. When the competition gets tougher, the size of the pie will have to increase to make sure it’s a win win for all.