ICT was identified by the government as a key component of the sultanate’s long-term economic development strategy, Vision 2040, which calls for enhancing national technical capabilities, constructing vital ICT infrastructure and improving governance through the use of e-services. Therefore, a renewed focus is under way as authorities work to integrate more technology into everyday life for both citizens and businesses. “Players in the sector are energetic and optimistic about the future,” Fadi Nasser, general manager of ICT at Omantel, told OBG. “The government started the shift towards digitalisation when it introduced e-services, new portals and mobile applications. Private companies have followed suit and are adopting new and advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data and internet of things (IoT).”
Structure & Oversight
A ministry-level reorganisation in October 2019 disassembled the Ministry of Transport and Communications and formed the Ministry of Technology and Communications (MTC) and the Ministry of Transport, the former of which provides oversight and policy guidance for IT and telecommunications. Employees and responsibilities of the Information Technology Authority (ITA) – which implemented national IT infrastructure projects and executed e-government initiatives – shifted to the MTC, along with those of two other bodies. The restructuring signals a clear focus on ICT and centralised control, and is expected to result in greater clarity and consistency in policy-making and regulatory execution, as well as quicker decision-making. Azza bint Sulaiman bin Said Al Ismailiya was appointed minister of technology and communications the same month.
The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) maintained oversight of telecommunications despite the restructuring. Established by the Telecoms Act of 2002, the TRA is responsible for implementing government policies, ensuring wider access to telecoms facilities, setting standards and regulating fair pricing. The authority also has a mandate to lead infrastructure development projects and attract foreign investment.
There are three types of telecoms licences available in Oman: Class I, Class II and Class III. Class I licences are issued by royal decree with TRA approval and permits the licensee to establish a public or international network. Class II licences are awarded by the MTC to operators that rely upon a Class I network, thus these licensees are also referred to as resellers. Class III licences are granted by the TRA to private operators that are not connected to a public network. As of December 2019 there were seven Class I, three Class II and three Class III license holders.
In 2003 a sector liberalisation strategy began, with the TRA awarding the sultanate’s first fixed-network licence in 2004 to Omantel, the first telecoms company to be established in the country. At the same time the first Class I mobile licence was given to Oman Mobile. The second mobile licence was then awarded to the Omani Qatari Telecoms Company in 2005. Further liberalisation followed suit, with three Class II licences issued between 2008 and 2014 to Renna Mobile, Friendi Mobile and Zajel. Three Class III licences were awarded from 2010 to 2017 to Azyan Telecom, RightNet and Mahd Group.
Oman’s telecoms sector is defined by high subscription rates. According to the TRA, there were 589,462 fixed telephone subscriptions in the third quarter of 2019 – a figure up 8.5% from the same period of 2018 – for a penetration rate of 89% and an average revenue per user (ARPU) of OR3.00 ($7.79). More than 75% of these subscriptions were residential. At the same time, there were 466,085 fixed internet subscriptions – 99% of which were fixed broadband – for a penetration rate of 70.4% and an ARPU of OR27.64 ($71.78). Subscriptions for fixed internet were up by 13.5% year-on-year (y-o-y) as the government continued its drive to roll out broadband and other fast internet services across the country.
While mobile services has higher penetration rates, they experienced a slowdown in recent years. At a penetration rate of 136.7%, there are 6.3m mobile telephone subscriptions for an ARPU of OR2.43 ($6.31) in the third quarter of 2019. Of these, 89% – or 5.6m – were prepaid, while 11% (694,500) were post-paid. These figures were down from a penetration rate of 145.7% and 6.6m subscriptions the year before. Meanwhile, over 4.7m customers subscribed to mobile broadband, resulting in a 101.9% penetration rate and ARPU of OR4.79 ($12.44). Subscriptions for the segment were up by 11.4% y-o-y from 4.2m subscriptions and a penetration rate of 92.6%.
Fixed services account for 63% of investment in the sector, while mobile accounts for 37%. Moreover, telecoms prices trended downwards in recent times on the back of increasing competition.
There will be an estimated 60m 5G subscriptions in the Middle East and North Africa by the end of 2024, and Oman has been working on the transition to the next-generation technology. In June 2019 the TRA announced the country would be ready for 5G in 2020. “The challenge of implementing 5G networks lies in having the right infrastructure in place that can capitalise on the technology, not only in terms of submarine cable upgrades but also applications such as medical robots and industrial AI machinery that will impact daily life,” Maqbool Al Wahaibi, CEO of Oman Data Park, told OBG. “However, the positive impacts of 5G will be immense. It will support the Fourth Industrial Revolution, enabling the faster speed and multi-layer connection that applications like AI and IoT require.”
The sector is dominated by Omantel and Ooredoo, which was known as Nawras until 2014. Both operators provide mobile and fixed-line broadband, as well as international gateway calls. Agreement on a third full-service operator was reached in May 2019, paving the way for Vodafone to enter the market in 2020. In addition, Awasr offers fixed broadband and international gateway services provided by Telecom Oman and Connect Arabia International.
Omantel, which is 51% state owned, held an initial public offering for a 30% share on the Muscat Securities Market (MSM) in 2005. Omantel Group’s 2018 audited report to the MSM showed revenue of OR2.2bn ($5.7bn) that year, up from OR751.7m ($1.6bn) in 2017. Net profit doubled from OR99.8m ($259.2m) in 2017 to OR208.8m ($542.3m) in 2018. The expansion continued into 2019, with revenue reaching OR1.9bn ($4.9bn) and net profit OR198.3m ($515m) in the first nine months of the year. The group’s total domestic subscriber base was 3.49m in 2018, down 0.2% from 3.50m in 2017, and it accounted for 45% of all mobile phone subscriptions in the third quarter of 2019.
Omantel’s performance received a boost in 2017 when it became the second-largest shareholder of Zain Group, with a 21.9% stake in the Kuwaiti firm. It also holds an 80% stake in the Oman Data Park. Additionally, Omantel launched Momkin, the first locally hosted IoT platform, in 2016 to help companies grow their offerings. The subsidiary is a tailored-solutions provider and works to transform business processes, improve operational effectiveness and create strategic differentiation using advanced technology. It is involved in several projects such as the installation of connected electricity metres and building management systems.
Since 2010 Ooredoo has been listed on the MSM and has operations in 10 countries, with revenue reaching OR283.6m ($736.5m) in 2018, up 3.7% from OR273.6m ($710.5m). Net profit for the firm increased by 35.2% in 2018, from OR31m ($80.5m) in 2017 to OR41.9m ($108.8m). The company had approximately 3m mobile and fixed-line customers in 2018, down from 3.1m in 2017, and it accounted for 40.2% of the total mobile phone subscriptions in late 2019. According to a report released by the company in February 2019, Ooredoo is prioritising investing in infrastructure, reaching 95% 4G network coverage across Oman in 2018. It also launched local cloud services for storage and computing.
Vodafone was chosen as the third mobile operator in May 2019 by Oman Future Telecommunications (OFT) when the firm was awarded the licence and appointed the international telecoms firm; the OFT is a consortium of local investment funds. In September 2019 Vodafone signed a strategic partnership agreement with OFT and the then-Ministry of Transport and Communications to introduce services under the Vodafone brand. According to the agreement, Vodafone and OFT will work together to develop a new mobile network and a number of other services. Vodafone plans to launch in Oman in 2020.
The entrance of an additional operator should increase competition, which could benefit both consumers and operators by incentivising innovation. However, some observers cite the sector’s already high market penetration rate – at over 135% – and raise concerns about the potential of the additional pressure to drive down prices. This could leave little room for companies to build surplus cash for investments in technologies such as cloud services or 5G. Still, the third operator should help build ICT solutions, introduce more flexibility to the market and increase operating expenditure for network upgrades.
A focus on e-government as a means to improve the government’s performance and enhance transparency has helped to kick-start the digitalisation of Oman. The MTC is spearheading efforts to boost e-government services and manages several functions central to this process, including the government network and cloud.
More than 50 government departments are part of an initiative introduced in August 2019 to digitalise key government services by 2022. The private sector has played a key role in the programme by providing financing under a public-private partnership framework. One such service is the Investment Services Centre’s Invest Easy portal. By the end of 2020 around 75 government agencies and private-sector service providers are expected to be integrated into the portal, which will serve as a single window for business services and include registration, chamber certificate facilitation, licensing approval, labour clearance, legal and regulatory updates, and project facilitation services. As of October 2019, 30 entities were integrated into the portal, including the ministries of manpower, environment, tourism and finance, as well as the Royal Oman Police and local municipalities.
“The Invest Easy platform has allowed investors to establish a company in Oman with ease,” Salim Sultan Al Ruzaiqi, CEO of the MTC, told OBG. “Invest Easy is a reliable and secure environment for business transactions, and an integrative government approach between bodies associated with the business environment. It aims to provide businesses with a single window to interact with the government while reducing paperwork and saving money, effort and time. It will thus make the sultanate more attractive to foreign investors and competitive regionally.”
According to the MTC, various bodies such as the Ministry of Manpower, the Ministry of Justice and regional municipalities launched more than 160 e-services in 2019. Moreover, other ministries such as the Ministry of Social Development, the Ministry of Housing and the Ministry of Tourism are expected to enact many e-services in 2020 as part of the ongoing digital transformation projects that the MTC is overseeing.
Authorities are building the infrastructure needed to ensure technological development. This has largely been executed through the National Broadband Strategy (NBS) being rolled out by Oman Broadband Company. Founded in 2014, the organisation is working with Omantel, Ooredoo and Awasr to ensure every resident and business in Oman has access to high-speed broadband regardless of where they are located, with a particular emphasis on enabling access in rural communities, which have long been on the wrong side of the digital divide. By the end of 2020 the NBS aims to see 80% of Muscat and 30% of other urban areas in Oman have access to highspeed, fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) connections, which would cover around 50% of the country’s population. The rollout of FTTH is being achieved in collaboration with municipal canalisation projects, reducing costs by running fibre cables through ducts and pipes that are already being installed.
The MTC has also taken a number of steps to improve ICT skills in Oman. According to the ministry, an on-the-job training programme was implemented that taps into a national fund to pay 60% of the salary of qualifying participants while they receive training. As of December 2019, 383 individuals had been trained as part of the scheme. It is expected that in 2020 the government’s contribution will fall to 40% of participants’ salaries, with companies paying the remainder. The objective is to enable the private sector to thrive while creating jobs and enhancing the quality of government services, the MTC told OBG. At the end of 2018 there were 3836 individuals employed in the telecoms sector, down from 3929 the year before.
To encourage the development of local ICT businesses, in 2003 the government established Knowledge Oasis Muscat (KOM), an ICT zone in the suburbs of the capital in a 20,000-sq-metre technology park that includes small and medium-sized enterprises, technical colleges and international companies. Managed by the Public Establishment for Industrial Estates (Madayn), KOM offers incentives for partnering with and investing in the zone such as a tax exemption on profits, an exemption from Customs duties on imported equipment, export credit and financing arrangements, repatriation of profits and the provision of a one-stop problem-solving shop.
Meanwhile, the Oman Technology Fund is a government entity that invests in emerging companies and innovative ideas, as well as works to turn the country into the preferred destination for entrepreneurs. It runs three investment programmes – the Techween Incubator, which supports angel and start-up companies with funds of up to $50,000; the Wadi Accelerator, which takes such companies to the next level of development with investments of up to $100,000; and Jasoor Ventures, which invests in global venture capital companies with financing of $500,000 to $3m.
Efforts to incubate local companies have already paid off. “Local ICT companies have been very successful, especially those in banking and energy,” Omantel’s Nasser told OBG. These firms are utilising the latest technology to create local solutions. For example, companies providing services for the energy sector are using AI-powered drones with analytics to overcome geographical limitations, and reduce the risks associated with the inspection of flares and pipelines in remote locations. On the finance side, banks have started to introduce blockchain-backed platforms and are accelerating digital channels to improve the relationship with their clients while improving value.
In addition to being a focal point in the ICT ecosystem, KOM has become home to a thriving subsector – data centres. “The market is growing,” Ahmed Al Shaaili, general manager of corporate services at Oman Data Park, told OBG. “When we started in 2012 cloud services were new. The first three years were slow and difficult. Now the market has matured and customers are demanding more of our product. Our revenue grew by around 40% in the first half of 2019, compared with the same period of 2018.”
Beyond private firms active in this space, the government has its own data centre as well, the National Data Centre, which was inaugurated in 2009 and provides the infrastructure that underpins the e-Oman and e-government services. “The government has been very active in adopting new technologies,” Monther Al Mamari, CEO of data2cloud, a subsidiary of Ooredoo, told OBG. “In addition to providing the majority of revenue for private data centres, government ministries and agencies are collaborating with companies to implement new technologies such as IoT and AI.”
Oman ranked 16th out of 194 countries and second in the region in the most recent Global Cybersecurity Index released by the International Telecommunications Union in 2018. In August 2019 the then-ITA announced plans to build a cybersecurity industry, focusing on managed security services, cybercrime analysis, security incident management and consultancy. The following month the ITA developed a register of accredited ICT service providers and published standards for providers of critical infrastructure with the aim to make it easier for companies and agencies to ensure they have knowledgeable providers, which will help to improve cybersecurity.
“The cybersecurity segment has been growing, but market leaders have focused on solutions rather than services,” Talal Al Zubair, CEO of the National Security Services Group, told OBG. “This may be because services are capital intensive and require significant time and effort before results are realised. However, services should be prioritised as many companies – especially those that operate in finance and banking – need to protect their assets from cyberthreats.”
Security is paramount for data centres as well, particularly as authorities seek to leverage the sultanate’s expertise to attract data centres and other IT services. “Before, customers did not prioritise security services, but today a high level of protection is necessary to function because customers realise we hold a great deal of sensitive information,” Al Shaaili told OBG.
ICT is poised for growth in the years ahead as the public and private sector move forward with initiatives to facilitate the expansion of the local ecosystem and utilise technologies such as AI and IoT in everyday life. Government restructuring has refocused attention on ICT, providing the sector with a dedicated policy leader. Competition in services is likely to increase with the entrance of a third mobile operator, which is beneficial for customers as it reduces prices, although it may mean leaner times ahead for providers. Efforts to boost rural and urban FTTH, upskill the workforce and provide support to local ICT start-ups will boost the sector and the economy as a whole as Oman prepares for the next stage of digital transformation.