Over the past decade, the MENA region has come a long way in terms of telecommunications sector advancement.
Between 2000 and 2005, sector revenues grew at an impressive CAGR of 16%, compared to 8% for OECD countries, largely driven by mobile sector growth. Often achieving penetration rates of well over 100%, local mobile markets have enabled phenomenal growth for operators and their global expansion.
However, the data sector is not advancing at the same pace. Only 15% of the MENA region’s population are internet users. The vast majority of this minority are constrained by the limitations of low-speed and intermittent dial-up. Broadband adoption remains abysmally low, reaching at most 6%.
Figures for 2006 show that the region’s 1.7 million broadband subscribers represented less than 1% of the world’s total broadband subscriber base of 250 million.
Why then, have populations exhibiting such appetite for mobile adoption remained so far behind their equals in broadband penetration?
The classical arguments are low affordability, capacity and coverage constraints, low awareness and accessibility, and limited online content and applications. But uniformly applying these arguments to the MENA region is neither possible, nor practical for understanding the dynamics of broadband penetration.
In a number of countries, market forces are at work. There are several operators to choose from, and prices are below those in highly competitive European and Asian markets. So why the low take-up rate?
The annual cost of a basic broadband connection in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, Algeria and Palestine, for example, is lower than, or on par with international standards. That said, adjusting for income levels, clear divergences are observed. Barring Bahrain, the annual cost of a connection is well over 10% of GDP per capita, reaching 35% in Palestine. Market forces alone cannot address such a deep-rooted affordability problem. Instead, it should be addressed through government initiatives, PC subsidies, community broadband centers, and other such affordability-related programs. While many countries are taking these steps, it is a long, slow drive to encourage adoption.
In other MENA countries, with the annual cost of a broadband connection at well over $500, price is a problem symptomatic of other issues.
The main culprit, unsurprisingly, is a lack of competition. In many Gulf markets, retail internet provisioning remains uncompetitive, explaining the high monopoly and duopoly prices. In these and other countries, the real bottleneck is the undelivered promise of competition higher up the telecom value chain. Service providers do not, or cannot, own alternative infrastructure. They are prevented from owning their own gateways, and must get access to the internet backbone, typically through a monopoly operator.
Capacity and coverage
The problem is further exacerbated by capacity and coverage constraints. Even in countries witnessing very high investment per capita in telecoms, there is a serious broadband access investment gap. Long local loops necessitate immediate investment in less densely populated areas, if broadband is to be provided over traditional networks. Within the next five years, new applications, and increasing user sophistication will outstrip the last-mile capacity of most current networks.
Another concern is international connectivity. While mobile operators can, for the most part, operate independently of one another, this is impossible for internet service providers. International connectivity can represent more than 80% of internet connection costs for service providers. The problem is twofold: first, international liberalization is in its infancy, restricting international bandwidth and capacity; second, the lack of regional co-operation for peering and local traffic aggregation has forced ISPs to accept high connection prices. The region has only two Internet Exchange Points, and several plans to build a region-wide backbone have yet to materialize, forcing operators to pay high international transit charges, when traffic could otherwise be handled locally.
Awareness and accessibility
Aside from market and access considerations, there is the issue of awareness. Understanding how critical computer literacy and appreciation of the internet’s potential is for broadband uptake, countries such as Egypt and Jordan have launched concerted awareness building and broadband utilization programs, partnering with NGOs, schools and universities.
But exclusively top-down provisioning programs have met with limited success when unaccompanied by grassroots utilization initiatives. The objectives should not be limited to education about how to use the internet, but perhaps more importantly, about what it can offer. Unfortunately, the direct impact of such programs is difficult to assess, and educational initiatives frequently require years of concerted effort before tangible benefits are reaped.
Beyond awareness, operators in the region must recognize their responsibility in making broadband accessible to the mass market. Broadband services’ complex installation and maintenance requirements are outpacing customers’ knowledge. As broadband use expands, fewer new customers will be technologically adept. Consequently, customers can no longer be relied on to facilitate installation and troubleshoot problems on their own. If broadband use is to extend beyond tech-savvy early adopters to the mainstream public, higher levels of customer service backed by responsive customer call centers will be required.
Online content and applications
The lack of local content and applications locks the final piece of the puzzle. Mobile technologies are primarily about communication with an existing network, external content is for the most part superfluous. Conversely, the internet is content and applications. With less than 3% of pages on the web in Arabic, it is no surprise that the internet has a limited value proposition for potential local users. Appeal is further curtailed by laws restricting certain applications such as VoIP, a major driver for broadband uptake.
Online content and applications are a major driver of consumer demand for broadband services, which in turn attracts necessary investment into more sophisticated infrastructure and services. Incubator and funding programs are needed to facilitate the development of attractive local content and applications, which will unlock significant economic value to developers.
Increasing broadband penetration by 2% in one year will boost telecom sector revenues in the MENA region by a minimum of 8% (at least $2 billion). This value can be captured and the success of regional mobile markets can be emulated. To this end, it is imperative that concerted policy, regulatory and market initiatives are undertaken to address the multiple roots of the MENA region’s broadband penetration deficiency, to achieve broadband’s true potential.
Issues to be addressed for more widespread broadband adoption in the MENA region:
• Capacity and coverage
• Awareness and accessibility
• Online content and applications
Hana Habayeb is a senior consultant,
Chady Smayra and Jad Hajj are associates
at Booz Allen Hamilton.