Jordan's ICT sector to benefit from new government roadmap and expansion of 4G LTE

Technological transformation and supportive state policies have led to 15 years of rapid growth in the kingdom’s ICT sector, now among the largest in its economy. Liberalisation in the 1990s and early 2000s made its telecoms industry one of the most open in the MENA region, but in recent years both telecoms and IT growth have suffered as a result of slowing macroeconomic growth, weakening global and domestic demand, and, in the telecoms sector, a high tax environment.

Recognising the challenges facing the sector, the government has unveiled a host of new policies aimed at returning growth to pre-2009 levels. On the IT side, a new 10-year roadmap, REACH 2025, will help bolster competitiveness, human resource development, access to finance, investor incentives and Jordan’s IT export development. The telecoms sector, meanwhile, is already benefitting from the issuance of new 4G LTE licences, with next-generation mobile broadband services expected to drive growth in the coming years.

Oversight

Unlike many of its regional neighbours, Jordan maintains an open and liberalised ICT sector. The Telecommunications Corporation, a state-owned incumbent operator, was established in 1971, before being re-branded into the Jordan Telecommunications Company, and later the Jordan Telecom Group (JTG), during a wave of liberalisation in the 1990s that eventually led to complete liberalisation in 2004.

The main agency responsible for industry oversight is the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (MICT), which works in tandem with the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) to develop policies and regulations and to stimulate competition. The TRC is responsible for spectrum allocation and licensing, while the MICT sets broader industry policy, including the development of REACH 2025.

In June 2016 Majd Shweikeh was officially sworn in as the minister of ICT, following a Cabinet reshuffle in March 2015. Industry stakeholders welcomed the news: the new minister comes from a private sector and entrepreneurial background, and served as CEO of VTEL Middle East and Africa between 2010 and 2012, in addition to working as vice-president for JTG (Orange Jordan) and CEO of Orange Mobile.

It Initiatives

Outside of telecoms, the IT industry has also benefitted from years of government-supported development. The Higher Council for Science and Technology, established in 1987, today oversees three national research centres specialising in health care, human resources, and research and development. In 2000 the government launched the Information Technology Association of Jordan (int@j), which assists the MICT in formulating national ICT strategies – including various iterations of the REACH strategy – in addition to collecting sector-specific data to measure the industry’s growth and progress.

Importantly for the sector’s burgeoning start-up scene, the government also moved in 1999 to launch Oasis500, which has quickly grown to become one of the region’s largest start-up seed investors. Companies operating in tech fields are eligible to receive between $30,000 and $50,000 in seed funding, while companies in the arts and creative industries can access up to $31,000. More than 100 start-ups have benefitted from Oasis500’s seed funding since its inception, with the company moving to launch a host of new start-up support programmes in recent years, including the Space Ventures fund, a joint venture with the European Investment Bank and European Space Agency, which targets development of space technology. The fund was originally set at €7.8m, although it has since been boosted to €12m, which will be allocated to start-ups in tranches of between €50,000 and €250,000.

Combined with ongoing private sector efforts to support tech entrepreneurs, including in the telecoms and pharmaceuticals industries, the kingdom is quickly becoming a regional centre for start-ups, with more than 600 tech companies in operation as of December 2015, half of which were start-ups (see analysis). “Jordan is attractive to start-ups because it is stable, secure and maintains good relationships with all of its neighbours,” Yousef Hamidaddin, former CEO of Oasis500, told OBG. “It is a good soft spot to initiate, validate and obtain regional and global adoption of new technologies.”

Operators

Three operators dominate Jordan’s telecoms landscape: Orange Jordan, Zain Jordan and Umniah. Orange, the incumbent operator, grew out of a privatisation in 2000, acquired under the name MobileCom first by France Telecom then by JTG in 2006, before a rebranding the next year, with the government maintaining a 30% stake. Zain Jordan was the first operator in the country to introduce GSM mobile services, in 1995, after Kuwait’s Zain group entered the market. Umniah, the sector’s newest entrant, established operations in Jordan in 2005, and is a subsidiary of Bahraini operator Batelco. At present Orange is the only integrated operator offering mobile, fixed-line, wholesale telecoms and internet services.

Mobile penetration is high in Jordan, having reached 148% of the population in the first quarter of 2016, according to the TRC. This amounts to 14.2m active subscribers, of which 13.1m were prepaid. In that period, there were also 367,100 landline subscribers, yielding a penetration rate of 3.8%. Mobile figures were up from the same period in 2015, in which there were 11.5m active subscribers and a penetration rate of 147%, of which 10.6m were prepaid. Landline subscribers, however, were down from 376,400 subscribers and a 5% penetration rate, reflecting the shift to mobile services.

According to the TRC, in the first quarter of 2016 Zain Jordan was the leading mobile provider in the kingdom, with 4.94m post-paid and pre-paid customers, holding a market share of 34.8%. Orange Jordan was the next-largest operator with 4.59m total customers, holding a market share of 32.4%, followed by Umniah, with 4.56m customers and a market share of 32.2%. The remaining 0.6% of the market was occupied by Friendi, a mobile virtual network operator with a small customer base of about 60,000.

Taxation

Declining voice use and rising data use, coupled with a move to roll out a new telecoms tax regime, has had an impact on operator revenues. In 2012 the government announced plans to raise telecoms taxes, which at the time comprised a 10% revenue-sharing tax, 8% sales tax, 12% mobile subscription tax and 24% income tax, with plans to roll out gradual 2% increases on the revenue-sharing tax until it reaches 20%. In August 2013 the new regime came into effect, doubling sales taxes on mobile phones from 8% to 16%, and doubling a special tax on mobile subscriptions from 12% to 24%. The 10% revenue-sharing tax remains in place, in addition to a 24% corporate tax on profits. The mobile sector is as the sole sector in Jordan that is subject to a revenue-sharing tax.

The move was widely criticised by consumers and industry stakeholders, with all three operators publicly denouncing the changes. In January 2014 a report commissioned by the big three operators found that revenues had fallen by 9% as a result of the new taxes, while profits fell by between 30% and 40%. A May 2015 report published by professional services firm Deloitte also found that Jordan has one of the highest levels of mobile-specific taxation worldwide, with taxes comprising over 35% of the cost of mobile ownership in the kingdom, second only to Turkey and higher than in 18 other countries surveyed. Deloitte reported that the mobile industry paid nearly $500m in recurring taxes and fees in 2013, equivalent to more than 50% of revenues during the same period, with the combination of the sales and special tax on mobile services accounting for 43.8% of the final retail price of mobile usage.

The MICT announced in September 2015 that it had undertaken a survey to study the impact of doubling taxation, with the ministry telling media a specialised government committee is attempting to determine the impact of the current tax regime on industry revenues. The study was scheduled for publication in early 2016, but as of November results had not been made public.

Growth In 2015

The new tax regime has continued to impact growth, with Orange Jordan attributing its 2.1% decline in revenues in 2015 to a heavy tax burden, mobile phone applications and intensifying competition, in addition to an electricity tariff increase rolled out for the telecoms industry and licence renewal fees. The group’s revenues hit JD337.8m ($475.1m) in 2015, although profits before income tax fell by 56.6% to JD25.3m ($35.6m), and total operational profits for the year fell by 61.8% to JD16.1m ($22.6m).

Zain Jordan clocked a more positive performance, reporting that although full-year revenues fell by 2% in 2015 to hit $459m, compared to $469m in 2014, earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) soared by 30% year-on-year (y-o-y) to reach $251m, with an EBITDA margin of 55% as a result of improved gross margins. Net income for the year rose by 7% to $122m, while data revenues, which comprised 29% of the total, increased by 18% y-o-y in 2015.

Although Umniah did not make its 2015 revenues public, the company reported a strong performance in 2015, as it invested heavily in its network capabilities to prepare for a rollout of 4G LTE services, including the BD37.7m ($100m) purchase of a 4G licence.

Penetration

Another factor affecting revenues and profits at major mobile operators has been the advent of mobile broadband internet, with a rising population of Jordanians choosing over-the-top mobile apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, rather than traditional telecoms services such as voice calling and SMS, for their communication needs. WhatsApp calls are currently blocked in the kingdom.

Internet access has been available in the kingdom since 1996, and penetration has risen rapidly in recent years, with the TRC reporting that in the first quarter of 2016 penetration had reached 84%, or 8.1m users, up from 76% in the same quarter of 2015 and 36% in 2008. Of this, there were 3.13m internet subscriptions. Although fixed broadband connections make up the majority of these and competition is largely infrastructure-based, according to an April 2016 report by telecoms research firm BuddeComm, mobile broadband subscriptions have soared since the first launch of 3G HSPA services by Orange Jordan in 2010. There were 2.8m broadband subscribers in the first quarter of 2016, followed by ADSL, at 218,400 subscribers and WiMAX at 81,200, according to the TRC.

Currently, the government is working towards extending the National Broadband Network (NBN), which aims to connect all public schools and universities, government agencies and hospitals to a nationwide fibre-optic network. Suppliers have also been building their own, which is challenging due to the high costs involved. As of the first quarter of 2016, there were 9225 fibre-to-the-home connections, with a penetration rate of 0.3%, according to TRC data.

4g Launch

The kingdom welcomed its first 4G LTE services in February 2015, when Zain Jordan launched a number of price bundles across more than 1000 sites nationwide, after obtaining a 4G licence from the TRC in 2014. Orange Jordan announced in January 2015 that it had obtained the second 4G licence from the TRC, investing $250m in 4G upgrades in 2014 and 2015, and paying JD71m ($100m) for the licence, which covers two 10-MHz bands on the 1800-MHz range. The company launched its first 4G services in Amman in May 2015 and expanded services nationwide by the end of the year, while Umniah rolled out 4G LTE services in June 2016 with the launch of its Evo 4G network, after obtaining a 4G licence in September 2015.

BuddeComm reported that 4G services are expanding rapidly in the kingdom with a penetration rate of between 11% and 14% in 2016, forecast to rise to 70% by 2020. Telecoms operators continue to invest in network upgrades. Orange Jordan, for example, invested JD200m ($281.3m) in 2015 to upgrade its 2G and 3G networks and is planning an additional JD300m ($421.9m) in new capital expenditure between 2015 and 2018.

4G devices are also becoming more popular, with Orange Jordan reporting that the penetration rate for 4G-enabled devices rose from between 6% and 7% in July 2015, to between 11% and 14% in 2016. The company forecast 4G penetration reaching 70% by 2020. In April 2016 BuddeComm reported that more than 60% of Jordanians own a smartphone, compared to the 38% estimated in 2013 by the Pew Research Centre, a US-based think tank.

IT

Although mobile operators continue to face a challenging tax structure, the advent of mobile broadband, coupled with a fast-growing population of tech-savvy professionals, is set to drive the IT sector to new highs in the coming years, aided by a new government strategy to strengthen Jordan’s position as a regional IT centre.

Supported by the establishment of the King Hussein Business Park, a tech centre which is home to major tech firms including Cisco and Microsoft, the kingdom’s tech sector has benefitted from early government recognition of the critical role it can play in economic development, with its GDP contribution rising to hit double digits over the past decade, making it one of the largest economic sectors. King Hussein Business Park is also the home of the MENA ICT Forum, the leading industry event in the region bringing together ICT experts, industry players and decision makers. The forum has been hosted by int@j biannually since 2002.

Recent Performance

The ICT sector contributes around 12% to GDP, according to a December 2015 report by Asian Century Institute, while according to the MICT, it accounted for 1.23% of total employment in 2013, the latest year for which data is available.

The IT sector has also witnessed a spike in foreign direct investment (FDI), exports and annual revenues in recent years, with int@j data showing that annual revenues increased from $60m to $581m between 2000 and 2005, while exports surged from $12m to $162.6m over the same period, and FDI went from nothing to hit $10.5m in 2005. The sector maintained a robust growth trajectory until 2008, as revenues rose at a compound average growth rate of 18.7% to peak at $962m in 2008, as FDI reached a cumulative $111.4m, and export revenues stood at $226.9m in the same year. Domestic revenues comprised 76.4% of the total in 2008, or $735.6m. Growth slowed from 2009, however, with total revenue falling by 7% in 2009 to hit $895m, and 18.2% in 2010 to $732m. Revenues reached their lowest point in 2012 at $617m, but returned to growth in 2013, which saw a 3.3% expansion to $638m, according to int@j. The downward trajectory was the result of falling domestic revenues, which lost 57% of their value between 2008 and 2013, to stand at $313m. This loss was slightly offset by a rise in export revenues, which expanded by 42% to end the period at $324m.

IT FDI, meanwhile, hit an all-time high of $16.23m in 2009, before falling to $14.9m in 2010, $1.4m in 2011, $2.5m in 2012 and $4.2m in 2013.

Total telecoms revenues have seen less dramatic movement since 2008-09. Revenues stood at $1.58bn in 2013, largely stable with the 2009 figure of $1.54bn. During the period revenues peaked at $1.72bn in 2011. Investment in the sector peaked at $310.5m in 2010 and stood at $194.4m in 2013, according to the TRC.

Growth Strategy

Jordan has launched a number of development strategies for its ICT sector over the years, beginning with the launch of its first REACH strategy in 1999, a detailed five-year roadmap for industry development which sought to enhance competitiveness in regional and global markets, and bolster public and private sector cooperation through development of five key pillars: promotion of regulatory bodies, human resources development, government support, capital and finance, and infrastructure development. Successive iterations of the plan, REACH 2 and REACH 3, were later adopted to update the sector strategy.

Authorities also moved to launch the National ICT Strategy (NIS), which runs from 2013 to 2017 and focuses on using ICT as a tool to improve economic activity and job creation. The NIS identifies four strategic targets to be met by 2017, including achieving $450m in IT investment, a 120% increase over 2012 levels; reaching $3.15bn in revenues for a 30% expansion over 2012; pushing IT-specific employment up by 30% to hit 20,000; and bolstering internet penetration to 85%.

Reach 2025

With technology and the IT market shifting rapidly, and mobile broadband penetration expanding at double-digit rates each year, the MICT is adopting its newest strategy, a 10-year industry roadmap and the latest iteration of the REACH initiative. In October 2015 the government announced plans to launch a comprehensive new ICT roadmap, REACH 2025, which aims to transform Jordan into a digital economy and leading regional centre of ICT. The strategy was designed by the MICT in collaboration with multiple public and private sector stakeholders, and Shweikeh told The Jordan Times that the strategy will seek to address the persistent challenges facing the ICT sector, with an emphasis on human resources, facilitating access to finance, and enhancing both physical and digital infrastructure to boost job creation in the sector.

Industry stakeholders including int@j officials also stressed the need to improve access to finance, in addition to calling for investor incentives and tax exemptions for ICT companies, as well as intellectual property reforms. The need to increase Jordan’s ICT exports was also a major concern. Zain Asfour, membership and business development manager at int@j, told OBG that stakeholders have adopted a strategy based on seven critical pillars for the industry, including creating a business-enabling environment, boosting ICT demand domestically, improving access to finance, developing human resources, building a community of ICT experts and supporting start-up growth.

Government Support

In an effort to advance these goals, the MICT and Jordanian government have moved to adopt a number of investment and tax incentives within the sector in recent years. In April 2016, for example, the government announced it had endorsed a series of incentives to boost the ICT sector, including a sales tax and Customs duty exemption for all services related to software development, mobile applications, website portals, outsourcing, digital contents and electronic games, IT training and e-learning. Goods and services necessary for ICT-related services will also receive an exemption from sales tax, while ICT income tax rates are being reduced from 20% to 14% for the next 10 years. The MICT also removed all minimum capital requirements for foreign investments in the ICT sector. “This is enabling: they are creating the right environment for companies to grow. When you have good legislation and an attractive business environment, companies will want to invest,” Asfour told OBG.

E-Government

In recent years, the kingdom has developed several digital public services. In 2016 a number of such projects came on-line, including roll-out of an “e-ID” initiative. The government’s e-government strategy 2014-16 was first launched in 2013. Five national objectives were set for the strategy: to improve service delivery, enhance responsiveness to customer needs, increase transparency, save time and money by improving efficiency in government processing, and create positive spin-off effects on Jordanian society.

According to the strategy, three initiatives are to be introduced that offer incentives for government entities to adopt digital technologies and offer e-services. These include the e-government award, a competition that acknowledges excellence in achieving transformation in the areas of IT and e-government to encourage entities, individuals and organisations to succeed and develop their creativity; “MADA”, a tool for measuring the extent of e-transformation and assess progress made; and Daleel, a business development tool to promote e-government consulting services.

The MICT is also in the process of implementing a new citizen ID programme. The Netherlands-based digital security company Gemalto was selected in April 2016 to deliver e-ID cards and automatic fingerprint identification systems to enhance national security, strengthen immigration controls and minimise the risk of electoral fraud. The e-ID card will strengthen the infrastructure required for digital signature and enable the addition of new e-government services onto the card when they are available.

The Jordan Times reported in mid-2016 there were more than 100 e-services available in various government institutions, including the Department of Lands and Survey, the Traffic Department, and the Greater Amman Municipality, with an additional 50 to be launched by the end of 2016 and another 70 in 2017. However, more efforts are needed to increase the public’s awareness of the benefits and necessity of using e-services, the government said, as data showed that 48% of citizens had not used any e-government service.

Outlook

Although mobile operators and customers continue to face some of the highest tax rates globally, the advent of new 4G LTE services bodes well for future telecoms development in Jordan, bolstered by rising recent investment into network upgrades. The IT sector’s recent slowdown, meanwhile, is being addressed by prudent, pro-business government policy, with the REACH 2025 roadmap set to transform the sector’s investment climate, allowing it to regain traction in FDI inflows, revenues and exports, and keeping the sector an economic mainstay of the Jordanian economy.

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