Getting up to speed: Laying the foundations to increase internet penetration through a national broadband network

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Since the introduction of market liberalisation 10 years ago, the government has tried to foster the provision of faster and more affordable internet access as one of its key development goals. This effectively led to the creation in 2003 of the Bahrain Internet Exchange (BIX), which operates within the market as a neutral and non-profit organisation. A key focus of the organisation is the development of a national broadband network (NBN), as laid out under the Third National Telecommunications Plan (TNTP) approved in July 2012.

AMBITIONS: According to the TNTP, a number of agencies of the government of Bahrain have, “concluded that Bahrain will be severely disadvantaged if […] it is not provided with a secure ultra-fast broadband fibre-optic infrastructure”. Fibre-optic cables allow the transmission of data at speeds 10 times greater than those using traditional broadband. According to a December 2012 market indicators report released by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), broadband internet penetration in the market stood at 34%. The NBN will also reduce the need for the use of external infrastructure when data is sent via the internet to locations within Bahrain, another goal of the TNTP that aims to insulate the country from global IT glitches.

While 2012 marked the formal start of the project, the government first floated the idea of creating such a network in 2010 when the TRA noted that an NBN would be a “strategic national asset”. The government announced the plan in 2012 after comparing the implementation of broadband networks in a number of European countries, including the UK. Although it may seem ambitious to develop such a system by 2015, the small size of Bahrain and the concentration of most of its population in the northern third of the country will likely make implementation of the scheme easier.

FINANCING: The preference of the Bahraini government is to play a limited role and instead rely on the private sector. Additionally, efforts will be made to avoid duplication of fixed infrastructure. The TRA is keen to work with the Bahrain Telecommunications Company (Batelco) and other private sector companies as well as public sector utilities to avoid overlapping coverage.

According to TradeArabia, a business journal publication, the government has committed around BD26m ($68.42m) to the development of internet infrastructure over the next four years. The NBN will be built around largely pre-existing fibre-optic cable networks. For example, a number of fibre-optic cables laid by the Electricity and Water Authority (EWA) have spare capacity in excess of that needed by the public utility. By making use of existing infrastructure, the NBN seeks to reduce the need for domestic construction, such as the digging up of roads. The NBN is supposed to ensure nation-wide internet speeds exceeding 1 GB per second for business users, and speeds of up to 100 MB per second for residential usage.

COLLABORATION: The ongoing development of the NBN is already creating new business opportunities. In February 2013, the Bahrain eGovernment Authority announced a partnership with VIVA Bahrain, one of the kingdom’s three mobile telecommunications providers, to ensure access to mobile recharge e-service and prepaid broadband on the e-government web portal, bahrain.bh. In 2013 the government also expects to generate a post-paid service as well. Further, BIX has consulted with Gulf Business Machine, an IT solutions provider, on the NBN project, with plans to apply IPoDWDM solutions, in addition to IT input from Cisco.

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The Report: Bahrain 2013

Telecoms & IT chapter from The Report: Bahrain 2013

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