Economic Update

Bahrain: Broadening the telecoms spectrum

The Middle East | 15 Mar 2013

The regulator of Bahrain’s telecommunications sector recently announced plans to unlock additional radio spectrum to improve speed and availability, news that has been much welcomed by sector players. However, how the bands will be allocated and to whom has not been made clear.

In late January, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) called for bids for five frequency bands, which will mainly be used for long-term evolution (LTE) or 4G networks. Under the timetable set out by the TRA, applications to participate in the auction need to be submitted by March 11, with the authority announcing the qualified bidders by March 26, and the auction itself to be held five days later.

The auction will be open to all current operators, and to any other qualified bidder, raising the possibility of further competition in the market, with final results expected to be announced by the beginning of April.

However, existing players have made it clear they want to see the additional bands allocated to them in order to meet current and future demand. Batelco, Viva Bahrain and Zain, as well as Menatelecom, a WiMAX provider, all called for participation in the auction to be limited to the present operators and opposed the idea of new entrants.

Current telecoms firms have cited several reasons for keeping the industry closed to new companies, such as the sector’s already highly competitive nature, questions over whether the market can sustain new entrants and if the necessary capital would be available to meet additional infrastructure requirements. This includes having to invest in a new nationwide fibre network that would boost data transfer speeds and increase bandwidth.

The issue of sustainability is a real one, with margins becoming increasingly tight. Batelco saw its profits drop 26% in the fourth quarter of 2012, according to Trade Arabia, a local business publication, and both Zain and Viva have also seen returns ease.

Despite being under pressure, the telecoms sector is a significant contributor to the economy, representing around 4% of GDP and employing some 2700 people. However, while an important sector, it is also a congested one, with mobile phone penetration rates close to 160% between the three service providers, who have a combined total of around 1.9m subscribers.

It is these subscribers that could be the biggest winners from the forthcoming auction. The Third National Telecommunications Plan (3NTP), issued in 2012, is the state’s blueprint for further development of the sector. The 3NTP calls for advanced LTE-based services, saying that the “lack of efficiently provided post-3G based services is likely to deprive citizens of attractive mobile functionality, and diminish the external perception of Bahrain as a leader in the adoption of technical innovation, particularly in comparison with neighbouring states”. The report also said that current service providers were struggling to roll out infrastructure that would meet the standards required by LTE in a technically efficient manner.

Nishit Lakhotia, a telecoms analyst at the Securities & Investment Company (SICO), a local investment bank, has said the open nature of the tender can be seen as a call to the current service providers to improve the services they offer to customers.

“The TRA is sending a strong message to existing operators that if they do not enhance their service offerings and set up the necessary infrastructure, the TRA is willing to offer additional mobile licences to other operators who are,” Lakhotia told the Reuters news agency in late January.

While the operators may be wary of increased competition, Sheikh Fawaz Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, the minister of state for telecommunications affairs, believes it can only strengthen the sector and the economy.

“My goal for 2013 is to reinforce our telecoms sector through the TRA, to the benefit of the consumers and Bahrain’s economic outlook,” Al Khalifa said at the end of December, when unveiling the TRA’s latest market indicators report. “Healthy competition will ensure that we offer the latest technology, and attractive retail packages and price points.”

Despite the government’s optimism, there have been few indications that new players are keen to enter the fray. Prospective investors may be reluctant due to the congested nature of the market and the potentially high costs of infrastructure and other start-up investments. The latest technology is also expensive, and attractive retail packages often mean low returns as operators strive to attract clients away from their rivals.

While the broadband market in Bahrain is expected to grow strongly after the 4G/LTE spectrums are made operational, there is no certainty that this promise of expansion will be enough to bring outside bidders to the table for the TRA auction, a situation that would suit the existing licence holders.

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