Dr Nasser Marafih Issue: Africa and the Middle East 2015
Article no.: 10
Topic: Connecting the next billion – the Operator’s Perspective
Author: Dr Nasser Marafih
Title: Group CEO
Organisation: Ooredo
PDF size: 358KB

About author

Dr. Nasser Marafih, has been Group CEO of Ooredoo since 2001. He also serves on the Board of the GSMA and is Chairman of the GSMA Mobile For Development Foundation.

Born in Doha, Qatar, Dr. Marafih holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, a Master of Science and a Ph.D in Communication Engineering, all from George Washington University, USA. Dr. Nasser started his career at Ooredoo in 1992 as expert advisor from the University of Qatar and was involved in the introduction of the first GSM service in the Middle East in February 1994. He joined Ooredoo Qatar in February 1994 as a Director for Strategic Planning & Development and led a number of strategic projects including the introduction of the Internet service in Qatar in 1996 and the privatization of Ooredoo Qatar from a government owned company to a publicly listed company in 1999.

In his role as CEO, Dr. Nasser has spearheaded Ooredoo’s global growth in recent years to expand to 15 operations in Middle East, North Africa and South East Asia, including Ooredoo’s acquisition of Wataniya Telecom, Ooredoo’s strategic partnership with ST Telemedia in Singapore, as well as the company’s purchase of a controlling stake in Indosat of Indonesia.

Dr. Nasser serves in as a board member in a number of other Ooredoo Group companies including Ooredoo in Myanmar and Asiacell in Iraq. In addition, Dr. Marafih serves as Chairman of the Board of the GSMA Mobile for Development Foundation and as a member of the Board of GSMA. He is also the chairman of the South Asia, Middle East, North Africa region’s SAMENA Telecommunication Council.
Dr Nasser ranked #41 among the 100 powerful Arab leaders in 2015 and he has appeared in the ranking since the launch of the list in 2013.

Article abstract

The challenges for operators in connecting the next billion are as much regulatory as they are technical – we need assistance in reducing the burden of regulatory fees, royalties and taxation; resolving the lack of affordable spectrum; and updating restrictive and not always transparent regulatory frameworks. 

Full Article

We are all aware of the transformative power of Internet access. By providing a Broadband connection, operators provide whole communities with access to a new world of educational, occupational and entertainment opportunities.

Some 2.3 billion people around the world now have access to the Internet, but that still leaves a huge number of people unable to access the life-enriching benefits of the online world.

Research by the ITU suggests that a 10% higher penetration of Broadband Internet access increases GDP by up to 1.5%, and that an increase of 10% in a country’s ‘digitization score’ reduces its unemployment rate by 1.02%.

Beyond the economic effects, Internet connectivity delivers enormous social benefits, supporting under-served communities and empowering women and young people through technology.

In particular, the MENA region and Africa are both home to booming youth populations. Roughly, 30% of the total Algerian population is between 15-29 years of age, more than 63% Nigerians are under 24 years old and 64% of Ethiopians are under-24.

Providing these young people with Internet access and a range of smart services is more than an effective business strategy. It ensures that young people in these markets have access to key services that they have previously been denied access to.
Everything from mobile financial services to mobile health and education services are now accessible via simple affordable devices. These services empower young people and address serious social issues such as unemployment by enabling them to access new educational and entrepreneurial opportunities.
So the political and moral case for connecting the next billion people – offering Internet access for the next tranche of Internet users is obvious.

However, as passionate as we are about bringing the next billion people online, substantial obstacles stand in the way of providing these connections.

There are challenges in creating the networks that will deliver Internet connectivity in these markets. The need goes beyond towers and network hubs – many of these areas do not have reliable power supplies or sufficient road networks to transport the material to build these towers.

Mobile operators also face infrastructure challenges to expand mobile coverage to under-served populations in rural and remote areas that do not have access to grid electricity and road infrastructure. This results in higher operational costs and reduced return-on-investment.

Research from the GSMA shows that energy costs are a significant proportion of network OPEX for mobile operators in such areas. For a typical tower site in Africa, for example, the share of energy costs is as high as 40% of the overall network OPEX. An off-grid site consumes nearly 13,000 liters of diesel every year, at an average annual energy OPEX of over US$21,000 and adds nearly 35 metric tons of CO2 emissions to the environment.

An investment in sustainable and renewable energy sources will make a contribution to both reducing costs and environmental impact. Using solar, wind and fuel cell technology – and moving away from diesel generators – is a necessity for mobile operators looking to connect the next billion.

Ooredoo, has significant recent experience in overcoming such challenges in one of the world’s remaining greenfield markets, Myanmar. The operational challenges of building towers in areas where steel is in short supply, and where material needs to be transported via ox cart, required imagination and creativity to address.

While telecom providers are working hard to build infrastructures where none currently exist, the costs of this development are significant and excessive sector-specific taxation is an impediment to growth.

Even when the network is up and running, connecting the next billion will require smart measures to encourage smartphone adoption. Operators need to work with handset manufactures to bring the costs down, and the rules relating to bundling and data packages need to evolve. There need to be lighter and clearer regulations, lower taxes for customers, and more spectrum for Broadband.

In addition, the playing field between Over-The-Top players and operators needs to be leveled, since many people’s first use of the Internet will be to set up a Facebook page or share their thoughts on Twitter. These companies need support from the carriers to optimize their services and content delivery, and regulators need to be engaged in ensuring that operators and OTT companies can work together equitably.

So, it is critical that policy-makers and regulators work alongside service providers to ensure that there is a flexible and enabling environment that supports and sustains the evolution of this sector.

The challenges for operators in connecting the next billion are as much regulatory as they are technical – we need assistance in reducing the burden of regulatory fees, royalties and taxation; resolving the lack of affordable spectrum; and updating restrictive and not always transparent regulatory frameworks.

An inclusive dialogue among the key stakeholders on creating the right policy environment is the most important step we can take together, to help create a new, viable future of digital inclusion for both the unserved and the underserved.

There is significant room for optimism. When there is consensus across the industry, we can move surprisingly quickly and effectively.

For example, one of the keys to bringing the next billion people online will be reducing the digital gap in access between men and women. There are over 200 million fewer women online than men globally, underlining the significant disparity in access between men and women.
Ooredoo is working with a number of partners on the GSMA Connected Women Programme, which is undertaking studies that will offer critical insights into the socio-economic benefits of greater inclusion of women in the telecommunications sector. The findings will be used by partners to develop initiatives and services for female consumers and employees.
GSMA operator partners will use the findings to deliver the appropriate services including enhanced access to the mobile Internet for women; recruitment of women to become distributors of mobile airtime credits within their communities, which will allow them to expand digital access while generating household income; and provision of information and services that women need with regards to health, education and entrepreneurship skills.
There are also moves to support the provision of mobile technology to women factory workers to enable access to health information and to launch services designed to protect women in vulnerable situations by enabling them to block unwanted callers, preventing harassment and verbal abuse.
Increasing the range of services designed specifically for women, and ensuring the facilities are available for them to access these services, will make a significant contribution to connecting more people to the Internet.