How would you describe the state of competition in Qatar’s telecommunications sector - fixed-line, mobile, and internet?
AL-JABER: When we started competition three years ago, we identified three clear objectives t. First, we thought that competition should foster an efficient telecom system. Second, we thought that we would like provide more choice in terms of services and price for consumers. And third, we wanted to make sure the market supports sustainable business growth in the ICT sector. We want to have very advanced and innovative services that serve the needs of the country and the consumers. When we introduced competition, we initiated a very clear and transparent process that was open to major operators worldwide. We had more than ten international operators show interest and there was particularly high interest in the mobile sector. After a transparent selection process, Vodafone Qatar was chosen as the second mobile operator for the country. They started their operation in June 2009, and now they have been providing service for two years. We also had strong interest in the license for fixed line telecommunications services. We again held a fair and transparent selection process, and Vodafone Qatar received the second fixed license as well. In less than two years, Vodafone has a strong market share. Today, Vodafone has started to provide very advanced services. Competition is creating more choice for consumers and price is one of the tools that operators are using to attract more customers. The quality of Vodafone’s network still needs to improve; it is not meeting our full expectations. I know that usually for operators to fully comply with the regulators it takes about three years and that within a year from now, both operators will provide the quality of service their license requires.
When it comes to fixed, we do not have competition yet, with Vodafone still working towards offering services. The government of Qatar decided to establish the Qatar National Broadband Company (Q.NBN) and is investing around QAR 2bn ($549m) into this company to roll out a high-speed fiber network across Qatar. This will be a very good platform for operators to provide advanced fixed services. This will create a lot of opportunity and synergy for businesses in ICT in Qatar. Also, we are introducing a new market for innovative services that I hope will attract many young entrepreneurs. Broadband creates many new opportunities and advanced services. The way I see it this will really create new opportunities for business through fixed line operation in Qatar.
What regulatory or structural changes could still be made to benefit consumers in the market?
AL-JABER: The way I see regulation is that we should focus on two things. First, we need to make sure that we keep anticompetitive behavior out of the marker because I believe that in order for the market to grow, both operators need to be given the same opportunities. When it comes to the consumer, we have to take the consumer’s concerns or the consumer’s complaints very seriously. In Qatar, we have the financial capability to provide the very best services. As the regulator, we should encourage the operators to provide the best and most advanced services in the world. For me, the quality of these services is important. In terms of affordability, we should be competitive, but in this market, quality is a bigger priority than affordability. I do not want affordability to affect the quality of the network or the quality of the services. I think the consumer is entitled to all of these services in their houses or delivered to their mobiles at the highest quality with an affordable price.
How has the enactment of Qatar’s e-Commerce Law impacted online business in the country?
AL-JABER: The e-commerce law was approved and published almost one year ago. I think drafting the law is one thing; the other thing that is very critical is that the foundation for this law to be utilized is there. For ictQATAR, we want to make sure that small and medium sized companies are utilizing the power of this law. This will not work unless we have small and medium businesses willing to use it, so they need to know how to use it and they need to know how their businesses can benefit from the law. We on an awareness campaign where we will provide advice to SMEs on the law, and we are also building a technical platform with information about the law for businesses. We are working closely with more than 800 small companies to develop the platform to meet their needs and enable them to upgrade their technological solutions. We need to provide both the technical requirements as well as build awareness for companies to start to move towards more e-commerce in the country.
What more can be done to promote further development of e-commerce locally?
AL-JABER: There are two ways to look at e-commerce, business to business (B2B) and cusiness to consumer (B2C). B2B is easy. Big companies will go and do business with other big companies. When it comes to B2C, the main challenge is that delivery to homes is still not as well established here as it is in the US or in Europe. If you order something from Amazon or eBay, in the States or Europe, your items can be delivered to your home. In some parts of the Middle East, addresses are not used. We are still very reliant on P.O. boxes for mailing. This is one of the challenges we need to solve to better enable B2C e-commerce.
In the US, online advertising makes up about 12% of the market and growth is really very high. When it comes to the MENA region, online advertising accounts for only about 2% of the market...there is a huge potential for growth.
Also, in our culture, we are very cash oriented. We usually prefer to pay in cash and receive payment in cash. Things are changing now. When Vodafone came, their payment services were mainly directed towards credit card payment and I thought that would be very difficult for them. Many people do not trust entering their credit card information on websites in this region. We really need to elevate cyber safety awareness and build this trust. The e-commerce law is one way to do this, but we also need to build privacy laws. We need people to have the right legal tools to protect personal data. Statistics show that only about 5% of Qataris are willing to use e-commerce and shop online. We really need to improve this. We need to provide new services and make this a part of how people pay for normal things in their day-to-day lives to encourage trust. We are only at the beginning, so hopefully, within a year, we will reach a 15% e-commerce penetration rate.
Where do you see the greatest potential for growth in ICT in regional markets?
AL-JABER: When it comes to the Middle East, growth in internet users has exploded. However, when you look at Arabic content available online, the growth has not kept pace with our population growth. Three years ago, less than one percent of the internet content was in Arabic, now it is more than 2%. About 6% of the world population and of total internet users worldwide is made up of Arabs. Clearly the growth potential here is huge. Most of the Arabic content that is available lacks quality though. There is huge opportunity for investors to look into Arabic content. I am very passionate about increasing Arabic content and the best course of action is to encourage people to take advantage of the emerging business opportunities. We are lacking in all areas from news, to entertainment, to games. Most of the investment today is made into search engines. I do not think we need an Arabic search engine. Those that are there are fine. We need to create content for these search engines to find. In the US, online advertising makes up about 12% of the market and growth is really very high. When it comes to the MENA region, online advertising accounts for only about 2% of the market. Because of the lack of Arabic content, Arab companies will not invest in online advertising. Imagine the opportunities there. There is a huge potential for growth. Also, we need to remember that the young generation is very focused on the digital world. If we do not digitize our culture and heritage, in 40 years it may not exist any longer. We want our identity and heritage to be preserved, so we need to digitize it.