In May 2016 Bahrain approved its fourth NTP, which mapped out key targets for the upcoming three-year period. The national plan, which succeeds the third NTP, released in 2012, calls for, among other things, 95% of all households and 100% of all businesses and public radio communication stations in the kingdom to have access to affordable, reliable and secure ultra-fast broadband services, with a downstream data rate of at least 100 Mbps for households and 1 Gbps for businesses and radio sites. Meanwhile, the remaining 5% of households that are not covered should have access to alternative broadband internet services. The plan will be implemented by the Ministry of Transportation and Telecommunications and stresses the need to strengthen the kingdom’s position and ensure that Bahrain is ranked in the top 20 countries globally when it comes to key international telecommunications indices.

THE TARGETS: The new NTP is based on eight broad themes, which include developing Bahrain’s high-speed broadband services infrastructure, consolidating competition in mobile telecommunications, developing wireless infrastructure to fully utilise the spectrum, and managing the frequency spectrum more effectively. The plan also aims to increase international connectivity and develop Bahrain further as a regional ICT centre and improve network security.

While the plan calls for specific targets to be met, the government believes that the wider objective – which is to establish Bahrain as a regional business and ICT centre – is achievable without the need for significant intervention in the mobile market. However, there are some concerns that the regulatory uncertainty regarding the scope for new entrants in the market may deter future investment by the three existing mobile licensees.

INTERNATIONAL CONNECTION: Given Bahrain’s size and location, a high level of international connectivity is viewed as critically important. The inability of Bahraini telecoms operators and internet service providers to access redundant and resilient international capacity at reasonable prices represents a key impediment to the kingdom’s ability to develop as a regional business and ICT centre. As such, two areas need to be addressed: the first is the ability of licensees to access international connectivity, and the second relates to the arrangements for Internet peering in Bahrain and the future role of the Bahrain Internet Exchange. The plan calls for authorities to undertake a review of the entire supply chain of international capacity, including the provision of cross-border dark fibre. Also, while significant progress has been made over the past three years in response to growing cybersecurity concerns, an inventory of all critical telecommunications infrastructure in Bahrain is needed to determine how they measure up against cybersecurity practices across the globe.

NATIONAL BROADBAND NETWORK: The third NTP had called for the establishment of a National Broadband Network (NBN), based on fibre-optic technology. Yet, as stated in the new plan “although some progress has been made during the past three years, fibre coverage and take-up in Bahrain have not kept up with government aspirations”. One reason for this is that the third NTP did not specifically assign responsibility for deploying the NBN to any particular operator for implementation.

Moving forward, the government considers the preferable option – due to the size, population distribution and geography of the country – to be a single NBN infrastructure owned by an entirely separate legal entity, which will supply wholesale products and services to licensed operators in the kingdom on a non-discriminatory basis. The new entity will then function separately from the incumbent operator, Bahrain Telecommunications Company, and will have the right and responsibility to establish, operate and maintain the NBN inside the kingdom’s borders.