5G technology underpins Smart Qatar initiatives

 

Qatar has positioned itself as a pioneer in ICT technology as the rollout of a 5G network across the country continues, bringing with it a host of exciting use cases for digital government and smart city initiatives. The country’s main telecoms companies, Vodafone and Ooredoo, reported stable performance in 2019 on the back of higher post-paid mobile revenue and fixed broadband services. They also reached significant milestones in 5G connectivity in Doha as network infrastructure expansion – along with new services such as 5G cloud and 5G-enabled internet of things (IoT) networks – remained a point of focus. With new ICT infrastructure underpinning the country’s soon-to-open smart city in Lusail, private sector-led developments are also creating the necessary conditions for the country’s various digital government initiatives to thrive.

Structure & Oversight

The responsibility for formulating policies for the telecommunications sector lies with the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MoTC), which is also in charge of enhancing the efficiency of ICT infrastructure more generally, including the development of smart cities. The MoTC comprises various departments relevant to specific government ICT initiatives, such as the Digital Society department, which runs the Better Connections Programme aimed at achieving greater digital inclusion by providing tools to enable ICT development.

Other government bodies pertinent to the ICT sector include the Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA), established in 2014, which issues or renews licences to telecoms companies. It also regulates IT, postal services, access to digital media, spectrum allocation and consumer protection, among others. The CRA’s work is guided by five-year strategy blueprints, the latest of which covers the 2020-24 period. This most recent strategy focuses primarily on achieving greater growth in the ICT sector and increasing its contribution to GDP. More specifically, it seeks to support Qatar National Vision 2030 and the country’s digital transformation and diversification. The Qatar Financial Centre, which signed a memorandum of understanding with the MoTC in January 2019, has also been playing a significant role in attracting entrepreneurs and foreign investment from global tech companies.

Performance & Size

According to the CRA, Qatar’s ICT sector contributed 1.4% of GDP, or QR9.7bn ($2.7bn), in 2018. In comparison, the sector accounted for 1.6% of GDP, or QR9.6bn ($2.6bn) the previous year. Various Qatar government programmes are driving long-term growth in the ICT sector, including the Smart Qatar Programme, also known as TASMU. Aimed at job creation and growing the ICT sector, TASMU supports the implementation of smart technology across five priority sectors: transportation, health care, logistics, environment and sport. By 2022 over 100 projects by local and foreign companies will be developed under the $1.6bn investment programme, which is also supported by Qatar Development Bank. The revenue generated
through the investment programme is expected to boost economic growth, while delivering at least $11bn out of a projected $275bn nominal GDP, by 2022. TASMU will also be a major driver of job creation, with the number of ICT jobs expected to increase at an annual rate of 10% over the period.

Meanwhile, the programme could help address concerns about the risks linked with the sector. “Qatar is a relatively small market, which can be limiting for the implementation of new technology, due to the fact that it can be too risky for companies to be the first to use new technology,” Jassim bin Mohammed bin Hamad Al Thani, vice-chairman of Mohamed bin Hamad Holding, told OBG. Indeed, the government’s initiatives creates an impetus that will benefit the country’s ICT subsectors as they are forecast to experience notable growth through to 2022. The IoT segment, a fundamental smart city component, is forecast to more than triple in size, with sales projected to rise from $172.5m in 2018 to $573m by 2022. ICT market intelligence firm International Data Corporation predicts Qatar’s software market and IT service market will grow to QR1.55bn ($425.4m) and more than QR1bn ($274.4m), respectively, by 2021. As for the cloud service segment, it is predicted to increase to $111m over the same period, a sizeable 226% increase from its 2019 level.

Telecoms

Ooredoo is the largest player in the Qatar telecoms market with a revenue market share of around 76% in 2018, though Vodafone’s is increasing. Founded in 1987, Ooredoo has grown from a small domestically focused fixed-line services company to a major international telecoms conglomerate. Qatari government entities own over 69% of Ooredoo’s equity, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority owns 10%, and around 20% is owned by private investors.

At the start of 2020 it boasted 117m customers across 10 markets, and in 2019 it reported global revenue of QR29.9bn ($8.2bn), while net profit attributable to its shareholders increased by 10% to QR1.7bn ($466.6m). Domestically, Ooredoo had 3.3m customers at the end of 2019, with a market penetration rate higher than 100%. Revenue stood at QR7.3bn ($2bn) that year, impacted by lower handset sales but enhanced by business-to-business growth. In 2019 earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) remained unchanged from the previous year at QR4bn ($1.09bn). In May 2018 Ooredoo was announced as the first operator in the world to launch 5G using a commercially available network.

Vodafone launched its services in the country in 2009 and currently offers voice, messaging, data, fixed communications, IoT and ICT management services to the Qatari government, consumers and businesses. In 2012 it introduced fibre-based products to the market, and in August 2018 it started rolling out 5G services.

The Qatari government, through various foundations and funds, owns 61.9% of Vodafone Qatar’s shares. As of March 2019 Vodafone had 1.7m mobile customers in Qatar, up 334,000 from a year before. In 2019 it reported a total revenue of QR2.1bn ($576.4m), a 1% improvement mainly due to methodological changes to adhere to the International Telecommunication Union’s standards for calculating the number of subscriptions. EBITDA increased by 21% to reach QR709m ($194.6m), while net profit was up 22%, from QR117.8m ($32.3m) in 2018 to QR143.7m ($39.4m) in 2019.

Mobile Subscriptions

According to a January 2019 report by social media monitoring firm Hootsuite, the mobile penetration rate in Qatar was 157 per 100 people, with 4.27m subscriptions for a population of 2.72m. The penetration rate stood at 118 per 100 people in 2010 and 146 in 2018, according to data from the
World Bank. Of the subscriptions recorded in January 2019, 75% were pre-paid and 25% post-paid.

Vodafone and Ooredoo’s mobile revenue has continued to rise due to the increasing number of customers switching to post-paid services. Neither company provides a detailed breakdown of its customer base by type of subscription, but they do provide data on growth dynamics. In 2019 Vodafone’s post-paid revenue increased by 20.6% to QR1bn ($274.5m). At the same time, the company’s average revenue per user declined by QR2 ($0.55) year-on-year (y-o-y) in the fourth quarter of 2019, to QR86 ($23.60). This was mostly the result of a reduction in call termination rates. Meanwhile, Ooredoo’s mobile post-paid customer base grew by 6% in 2019 to reach 769,150 customers. Its average revenue per user in Qatar in the last quarter of 2019 was QR107 ($29.36), down from QR114 ($31.29) during the same period the previous year.

Fixed Broadband

Both Vodafone and Ooredoo have seen revenue from their broadband subscriber base increase. Fixed broadband connections continue to rise as a result of expanding fibre-optic coverage, which as of 2019 had the capacity to reach 99% of the population. In the second quarter of 2019 Ooredoo had 380,960 fixed broadband connections in Qatar through its fibre network, down from 386,336 the previous quarter. The number of fixed-line subscribers in the second quarter of 2018 was 385,089 out of a total customer base of almost 3.3m people. Fixed-line services accounted for 11.5% of the company’s total subscriber base in Qatar in the second quarter of 2019, compared with 11.6% in the previous quarter. While Vodafone does not provide detailed data on its fixed broadband customers in Qatar, the company has previously stated that growth in this segment was key to its strong performance in 2019.

5G Development

The 5G rollout launched in Qatar in 2018 and continues at a rapid pace. According to the CRA, service providers have a licensing obligation to cover 40% of all densely populated areas, primary roads and 2022 FIFA World Cup venues by 2020. Both Ooredoo and Vodafone have launched commercial 5G networks. In August 2019, for example, Vodafone announced that all its customers, on any of its pre-paid or post-paid mobile plans, would have access to its 5G services provided that they had 5G-compatible devices. At the same time, the company launched unlimited 5G
data plans to give mobile users access to the high-speed network, whose speeds have so far reached 1 Gbps. In addition to offering unlimited 5G services for businesses in Qatar, Vodafone now also offers commercial 5G home internet through its fibre network. In April 2019 it launched GigaHome, a 5G internet multi-play service that uses a high-powered router to ensure Wi-Fi coverage in all areas of the home.

Meanwhile, Ooredoo tested the first commercial 5G broadband for homes in August 2018 through its fibre network, and has been marketing the service since. The company has achieved considerable speeds of up to 2 Gbps through its 5G home broadband services, 20 times higher than its current average fibre-optic speeds.

Network Expansion & Upgrades

Through partnerships with global tech companies, Vodafone and Ooredoo have been expanding their 5G coverage. After initial test phases, both providers are currently focused on expanding their 5G network infrastructure to allow for full deployment of the services across the country. Vodafone has partnered with Chinese tech giant Huawei to expand and upgrade its 5G infrastructure, in Qatar, while Ooredoo is working with Swedish and Finnish communication companies Ericsson and Nokia.

To ensure full 5G coverage, telecoms companies are significantly increasing the number of antennas and mini-cell towers, given that 5G waves travel shorter distances than 4G waves. As of July 2019 Ooredoo had already built or upgraded 85 of 100 planned 5G-enabled network towers to serve customers in Doha. Its coverage now reaches more than one-third of the population, and it has a licensing obligation to reach 100% by 2022. To this end, the company is working with its partners to build or upgrade 1200 network stations.

While focusing on its own network upgrades, which have expanded 5G coverage to numerous areas on the periphery of Doha, Vodafone has also been working to launch 5G compatible devices in Qatar. In July 2019 it officially started selling Huawei’s Mate 20 X 5G, the country’s first 5G-enabled mobile device. Several months later, in January 2020, Vodafone launched the Huawei 5G Mobile Wi-Fi Pro, a device that converts 5G signals to Wi-Fi signals that customers can use with devices that are not 5G-enabled. “Qatar is well equipped when it comes to ICT infrastructure; the fibre-optic network has near full coverage, those areas that are not connected are reachable through satellite connections and 5G is also at an advanced stage,” Ali Ahmed Al Kuwari, CEO of Es’hailSat (Qatar Satellite Company), told OBG. “Having this combination of fibre-optic, satellite and 5G coverage provides the perfect environment for investment and web hosting.”

Use Cases

Aside from vastly increased connection speeds for internet users, 5G technology can be applied across various IoT use cases in Qatar, from smart city initiatives to e-government platforms and cloud computing. Indeed, various sectors including transport, retail, energy, health care and education are set to benefit. In transport, autonomous vehicles could potentially use 5G mobile broadband to navigate streets and motorways more efficiently and more safely, while 5G-enabled smart grids could better monitor and predict increases in electricity demand for the energy sector.

To support these and other potential use cases across myriad devices, Vodafone launched Qatar’s first Narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT) network in October 2019, which allows for numerous connections while utilising a low amount of the connected devices’ power. “Our NB-IoT network will allow millions of everyday objects to be connected to the IoT, creating an exciting digital future that will improve the way we live and work,” Sheikh Hamad bin Abdulla Al Thani, CEO of Vodafone Qatar, said in a statement to local media during the Qatar IT Conference and Exhibition (QITCOM) 2019.

Meanwhile, Ooredoo is working with Nokia to build a 5G-cloud-native core network to enhance its existing mobile broadband services. Cloud-based 5G services are particularly important to the long-term sustainability of 5G services as they do not rely on typical physical ICT infrastructure like network towers, and are therefore more scaleable. Ooredoo’s cloud-based 5G services have already been tested with unmanned aerial drones, and many other potential use cases have been identified for consumers and businesses.

Smart Cities & Smart Government

As part of its Qatar National Vision 2030 strategy, the country aims to become a knowledge-based society and is pioneering solutions to optimise infrastructure and government. “Qatar is very committed to developing its digital economy and is taking concrete steps for this,” Abdul Salam Knio, managing partner at Doha-based digital business transformation advisory firm ICT, told OBG. “Most businesses do not fully comprehend what a digital transformation is, however, and part of the transformative process involves understanding some of the risks involved – for example, cyberthreats to government infrastructure.”

Two initiatives fall under the government’s digitalisation plan: the Qatar e-Government 2020 strategy, or e-Government 2020, and the Smart Cities initiative. Launched in 2014, e-Government 2020 aims to enhance government service delivery, create efficiency and increase openness with a target of bringing 100% of government services online by the end of 2020. As part of the plan, Hukoomi, an e-government portal, was launched to make information and services more accessible. According to MoTC data, under the Qatar Digital Government 2020 programme, the number of e-government services available online has reached 2700, while the number of users accessing the platform is increasing rapidly. In the first half of 2019 over 1.6m users accessed the portal, a 60% increase on the same period in 2018, when this figure stood at 999,586.

Partnerships with companies like Huawei have been key to achieving these milestones. Aside from providing the technology to build the government’s digital architecture, Huawei is also supporting upskilling of government employees in ICT through training programmes. In November 2019 Huawei and the MoTC signed an memorandum of understanding, with the former agreeing to support the Qatar Digital Government Training Programme. Launched in 2016, the programme supports government ICT professionals across various ministries and departments through training, placements and certification.

The Smart Cities initiative falls under the umbrella of TASMU and its rollout of ICT technology across various priority sectors. Smart cities, which integrate digital technology into urban planning to optimise the efficiency of operations and services, are a growing global trend and can boost a city’s socio-economic development. Recognising this potential, Qatar is developing some of the world’s first cities to be fully integrated with smart systems. Lusail City, for instance, is a $45bn smart city being developed by Qatari Diar, the real estate arm of the Qatar Investment Authority, in partnership with Ooredoo. Located just north of Doha and slated for completion in 2020, it will be one of the host cities of the 2022 FIFA World Cup and eventually be home to around 250,000 residents, while offices and shops in the city will employ an expected 250,000 people. The entire city will be connected across a 5G fixed and wireless backbone built by Ooredoo. Sensors and other devices installed across the city will be connected to the IoT to enhance efficiency.

Tech Development

Under the guidance of the MoTC’s Digital Incubation Centre (DIC), Qatar’s tech start-up scene continues to grow. Established in 2011 with a mandate to boost ICT innovation in the country, the DIC offers free office space, technical support, training and guidance, mentorship, as well as business planning and legal advice to the country’s budding tech entrepreneurs and start-ups. It runs three programmes, among which is the IdeaCamp, a five-week incubation programme. The DIC has so far invested QR13m ($3.6m) to support around 100 local start-ups.

The DIC’s work complements other government-led initiatives in the tech development space, such as the Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP) free zone. As of late 2019 QSTP had invested in 115 start-ups across the region, incubated 20 Qatari start-ups and hosted over 50 companies, including 20 international companies, at its campus in Doha. In 2019 QSTP announced it would invest a further $50m over the next five years to support local and regional start-ups. Additionally, the publicly owned Qatar Development Bank oversees the Qatar Business Incubation Centre, which includes a dedicated facility for local technology-focused startups operated in partnership with Ooredoo.

Outlook

The year 2020 presents exciting prospects for the ICT sector. By the end of 2020 Vodafone and Ooredoo have committed to roll out 5G in all densely populated areas, along primary roads and motorways, and at venues associated with the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In anticipation of this, all stakeholders will be closely monitoring the opening of Lusail City. Investors will also be looking for further opportunities from TASMU, after the MoTC awarded 11 multimillion-dollar contracts under the programme at the annual QITCOM in November 2019. The flagship project to develop the TASMU Central Platform was awarded to a consortium of firms, of which Oooredoo was the main partner.

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The Report: Qatar 2020

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