Qatar’s Digital Highway to the Future
Qatar recently announced plans to build the Qatar National Broadband Network (QNBN), an ambitious endeavor that aims to connect the entire country to a high speed fiber network by 2015. ICT Connector spoke with ictQATAR Secretary General Dr. Hessa Al Jaber about her vision for QNBN, how she plans to build demand for the broadband network and how she envisions QNBN propelling Qatar into the future.
Some have called data and information the new oil, and Qatar is taking bold steps to take full advantage of this emerging resource. With the recent announcement of plans to build a high speed Qatar National Broadband Network (QNBN), Qatar’s government gave a clear indication of its commitment to taking decisive steps towards becoming a true knowledge-based economy. This critical investment moves Qatar towards a future that is not solely dependent on natural resources, but rather one that also relies on information and communication technology as the key to continued prosperity.
“Qatar is a country with grand ambitions and high speed channels of connectivity will be essential to achieving its goals,” said Dr. Hessa Al Jaber, ictQATAR’s Secretary General, the government official driving Qatar’s digital agenda. “As a relatively small market, however, relying solely on attracting private investment to build an expensive fiber network infrastructure will limit progress, delay advancements in important sectors and likely stall some already planned, forward looking projects. This government-led National Broadband Network effort will ensure progress and keep our commitment to bringing connectivity to every corner of Qatar, including the most remote areas,” said Dr. Hessa.
A recently formed government company, the Qatar National Broadband Company, will lead the build-out of the passive infrastructure of the broadband network and will later manage access to licensed service providers. The company plans to work closely with the private sector, specifically network operators that are investing in a fiber-network to ensure efforts are not duplicated and assets are shared to maximize impact. Qtel has already committed considerable resources in their fiber-to-home efforts and Vodafone-Qatar is also beginning construction of fiber optic networks, in addition to passive infrastructure being built by some development corporations. The involvement of these entities in QNBN will play a major role in its success. Qatar is aiming to have QNBN connected to 95 percent of the country by 2015, with speeds reaching 100 Mbps.
Investing in the Future
The QNBN is a considerable financial investment on the part of Qatar, but the government expects it to have significant returns that will benefit future generations. According to the recent World Economic Forum Global Information Technology Report, there is a strong correlation between broadband penetration and global competitiveness. In addition, a 2009 Booz & Company study found that increasing broadband penetration has a direct impact on growth in a country’s GDP. Qatar’s government specifically expects QNBN to accelerate innovation and knowledge creation across the government and private sectors, improve the quality and efficiency of ICT services, increase competition and choice in the ICT market, and increase the resiliency of Qatar’s ICT infrastructure overall.
Currently Qatar has among the highest broadband penetrations in the world, however, it lags significantly behind leading nation in terms of speed, with current maximum speed of only 8 Mbps. And while the penetration rate is high with 70 percent of homes having broadband, Qatar’s population is expected to double over the next five year, meaning more lines of connection will be needed. Current data from ictQATAR estimates there are 186,000 broadband lines in the country, with nearly 400,000 expected to be necessary by 2020. QNBN aims to have 439,000 broadband lines by 2025, covering households, government entities and enterprises.
Building Broadband Demand
Beyond building the network and continuing to increase its penetration, there is the need to build demand for use of the broadband network. Qatar expects QNBN to be a strong competitive advantage across a variety of sectors that will stimulate more demand for access. Companies will be able to offer new products and services as a result of greater broadband access and speeds on both the supply and demand side. Qatar also foresees the emergence of vibrant digital communities as a result of high speed broadband. These digital communities could span all sectors and Qatar’s government is working in a variety of these sectors to build demand, including programs in e-health, e-education, e-commerce and e-sustainability.
“In healthcare, education, finance, science, energy and the environment, high speed broadband has the potential to enable amazing advancements. The realm of what is possible in terms of services and applications grows exponentially as broadband capacity and speed is increased,” said Dr. Hessa. “For example, in healthcare, basic broadband connection can allow for the sharing of electronic health records, but with a high speed network, complex images, such as brain scans can be shared in real time, saving lives. And true tele-medicine can occur in even remote areas. For businesses, high speed access will create new business opportunities as potential customers are also able to access digital content at high speeds. “From new applications to new devices to new multimedia offerings, I expect QNBN to spur considerable innovation in Qatar’s ICT sector,” added Dr. Hessa.
Spurring Local Content
In addition to its sector specific programs that will build demand, ictQATAR is working to promote the development of original digital content in the country, specifically Arabic content. To help develop a digital content industry, ictQATAR established a business incubation center that will nurture new businesses and entrepreneurs working in the area of digital content. The incubation center will offer funding, mentoring and other resources, as well as a dynamic environment for innovation. Beyond this, ictQATAR is moving forward with plans to digitize important cultural content and artifacts, making them more accessible to future generations and the global community.
The government sector is also a major driving force for broadband demand by introducing new services and working to automate many government processes. Ranked 2nd in the world in terms of government readiness to use ICT by the World Economic Forum’s 2010-2011 Global Information Technology Report, Qatar is working to utilize ICT to make its government more efficient, responsive and transparent. Already, through Hukoomi, the government’s online portal, more than 300 information services and 60 transactional e-services are available. Additionally, ictQATAR is leading the development of an integrated Government Network that connects government agencies throughout the country via a secure, high speed network, which will be complemented by QNBN.
Increased broadband bandwidth and speed represents only part of Qatar’s demand equation. Any visitor to the country knows that there are considerable development projects underway, with more than 250 billion dollars of infrastructure projects planned. This includes entire new urban areas, Qatar Media City, a new rail system, the new Doha International Airport, and numerous gas field developments. All of these planned infrastructure projects will require advanced broadband connections to thrive and the QNBN will be a vital backbone for ensuring success. And of course the World Cup 2022 will require connectivity in areas where development has not yet even begun.
For traditional network operators, the government investment in building out the fiber broadband network, coupled with network being built by land developers, means these operators will need to explore new ways to generate revenue beyond their traditional focus on network deployment. Increased consumer demand enabled by QNBN creates new opportunities for operators application development, bundled packages and services.
Data in the Zettabytes
Data is also a major factor in driving demand for broadband. According to the International Data Corporation, the total amount of digital content created in 2010 was 1.2 zettabytes (a zettabyte is one followed by 21 zeroes), and by 2020, they estimate this number will grow to 35 zettabytes. This huge amount of data creates the need for new data centers and certainly will increase the demand for cloud services. Qatar is already building its cloud computing capacity, with numerous local companies beginning to offer cloud solutions, which could be greatly expanded with increased broadband capacity. Additionally, as demand for content via mobile networks increases, mobile operators will need greater broadband bandwidth to keep up with this demand. Already, data traffic has surpassed voice traffic, and with smart phones becoming more common place, the data demand will continue to grow.
“Qatar can play a major role in the creation, transmission and curation of digital data. We hope to attract major IT leaders to Qatar, possibly through the creation of a ‘data free zone’,” according to Dr. Hessa. “There are also numerous major research endeavors underway in the country, including plans for major research centers that will produce significant digital data that needs to be stored and shared. Qatar certainly has the potential to be a data and ICT hub for the region, and QNBN is essential for this to happen,” she said.
Enhancing International Connectivity
As demand for broadband grows and output hopefully increases, Qatar recognizes the need for enhanced international connectivity to be globally competitive. “If Qatar wants to become an exporter of data and knowledge, we need to ensure the QNBN is connected to a broader international network,” said Al Jaber. In 2010, Qatar announced plans to launch a high-capacity communications satellite in 2013. For additional connectivity, Gulf Bridge International is working with Qatar’s government to connect the country to Europe, Asia and Africa through multiple submarine cables. These projects will help further increase Qatar’s international bandwidth and resilience in terms of connectivity. "The double landing of the GBI cable system in Qatar will further enhance Qatar's position in the region as a strategic business and communications hub," said Gulf Bridge International CEO Ahmed Mekky.
Being at the Forefront of the ICT Revolution
In addition to being the government agency that coordinates the build-out of the Qatar National Broadband Network and other large-scale ICT infrastructure projects, ictQATAR will play a major role in helping shape an ICT regulatory framework that is conducive to innovation. “We recognize that the ICT sector in many ways is volatile. It changes and evolves rapidly, and individuals and businesses need to stay on the leading-edge of the curve. The policies and regulations we develop to help grow the ICT sector will reflect this reality and allow for the flexibility needed for innovation to happen. It is much more than ‘build it and they will come,’” said Dr. Hessa.
“The Qatar National Broadband Network will help grow our economy and enrich the lives of people in Qatar. Access to broadband is an essential service, much like water and electricity. Qatar is committed to ensuring this vital resource is available to everyone in the country. Access and connectivity to broadband are truly fundamental rights. Qatar recognizes the need to be at the forefront of the ICT revolution and QNBN not only positions us as a global leader, it makes a successful future possible,” concluded Dr. Hessa.