Qatar: Bit by megabit

QatarICT

Economic News

21 Nov 2011
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A series of ongoing development programmes in information and communications technology (ICT) have resulted in rapidly improving technology indicators across the board in Qatar. With guidance from the Supreme Council of Information and Communication Technology, known as ictQATAR, the government’s industry regulator, the sector is primed to see future growth under a new national broadband network and development strategy.

The ICT sector has come to play a major role in the country over the past decade, largely due to government-led investment and development programmes. According to ictQATAR, 89% of Qatari households and 85% of individuals had a computer in 2010, and around 70% of households had a broadband connection, compared to 41% in 2008. Similarly, the telecoms sector is growing rapidly: in 2010 mobile penetration stood at 167%, which was among the highest in the world.

These figures may be set to increase even further, however, with the advent of a recently formed government company, the Qatar National Broadband Company, which will oversee the building of the new Qatar National Broadband Network (QNBN), a high-speed fibre network that aims to connect the entire country by 2015.

The company will build the passive infrastructure of the QNBN and will later manage access to service providers, in particular the private sector and network operators that are investing in a fibre network.

“Qatar is a country with grand ambitions and high speed channels of connectivity will be essential to achieving its goals,” Hessa Al Jaber, ictQATAR’s secretary general, told media last spring. “As a relatively small market, however, relying solely on attracting private investment to build an expensive fiber network infrastructure will limit progress, delay advancements in important sectors and likely stall some already planned, forward looking projects. This government-led National Broadband Network effort will ensure progress and keep our commitment to bringing connectivity to every corner of Qatar, including the most remote areas.”

The private sector is also doing its part: Qatar Telecom, for one, launched its 4G network in early October. Some 900 base stations across the country have already begun improving mobile broadband internet service for customers in areas covered by the network and will offer potential download speeds of as much as 150 Mbps on mobile phones and devices.

Based on the country’s mobile penetration numbers, it is clear that many Qataris access the internet both at home via broadband and on their mobile devices, which is in line with mature ICT markets around the world. According to ictQATAR, the sector contributed 1.6% to GDP in 2010, up from 1.2% in 2008.

This impressive growth is primarily the result of projects carried out under the aegis of ictQATAR’s first five-year plan, which was introduced in 2005, just a year after the council was created. In an effort to sustain rapid growth over the coming five years, in mid-June 2011 the organisation introduced Qatar’s National ICT Plan 2015, which takes over where the 2005 plan left off.

The plan is the result of a lengthy public consultation process carried out by ictQATAR over the past few years. As part of this process, the organisation identified a number of ongoing challenges facing the sector. Broadly, these include Qatar’s broadband connectivity, which it identified as currently inadequate in terms of speed and scope; a widespread lack of digital literacy, especially among the general population; and a relatively underdeveloped ICT business environment, which has hindered the growth of a thriving private sector. The 2015 plan was developed partly in an effort to overcome these issues.

The plan is organised into five strategic thrusts. The first thrust, centred on improving connectivity, includes initiatives to develop new digital infrastructure, such as a national fibre network and a new satellite programme; to modernise ICT regulations and policies; to enforce the regulatory framework; to encourage sustainability among sector players; and to offer increased incentives in an effort to attract new investors.

The second focus area, which aims to boost human capacity in the sector, includes initiatives to further develop the national ICT workforce and launch a targeted ICT literacy outreach programme to boost awareness among all segments of the population. The third thrust aims to develop the ICT business environment to boost private sector participation.

The fourth thrust, which is focused on enhancing the delivery of public services via ICT, includes initiatives to build a centralised data centre for government information; to boost digital security throughout the country; and to launch a single ICT backbone to connect all official organisations. Finally, the fifth focal point aims to leverage ICT in socially beneficial ways, including in the health and education sectors, among others.

If all goes according to plan, the 2015 initiative aims to double the sector’s GDP contribution to $3bn; double its workforce to 40,000 employees; boost household and business broadband penetration to 95%, and increase broadband speeds throughout the country; improve digital literacy; and increase the online accessibility of government services.

Altogether, these improvements represent a significant push toward creating a knowledge-based economy in Qatar, which is in line with the government’s overarching 2030 development plan and similar short-term plans in other sectors.

The announcement of the plan in mid-2011 has resulted in optimism regarding the future of ICT in Qatar. This bodes well for the growth not only of the country’s major ICT players, but for other sectors in Qatar as well.

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