x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

GCC telecoms race to improve roaming services in face of growing competition

GCC telecom companies are racing to improve the roaming services offered to their customers.

Etisalat, Saudi  Telecom and Zain have all launched better roaming services.
Etisalat, Saudi Telecom and Zain have all launched better roaming services.

Facing competitive pressure and looming regulatory intervention, GCC telecom companies are racing to improve the roaming services offered to their customers. In recent months, Etisalat, Saudi Telecom and Zain of Kuwait have all launched improved roaming - where users can operate their mobiles while travelling in different countries - packages. And yesterday Batelco, the state-owned Bahraini operator, activated a new system that will let its customers receive incoming calls free while roaming in 21 countries throughout the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

When Zain acquired the Pan-African operator Celtel in 2005, it inherited an innovative system pioneered by the company that allowed users to roam freely across its multi-country network, paying local charges wherever they went. The company has since expanded the service, branded as One Network, across its African and Middle Eastern operations, creating what is effectively a single network stretching from Nigeria to Iraq. The service has won multiple awards and been recognised across the industry as a groundbreaking approach to roaming.

Competition between GCC mobile operators is increasing, with new entrants being announced or launched in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait this year. As former domestic monopolies and duopolies prepare to battle for customers, perks like an attractive roaming package are seen as a way to retain big-spending subscribers. Aside from competitive pressures, the region's regulators have threatened to impose a cap on roaming charges if the industry does not bring down prices. In April the Arab Regulators Network (Aregnet) decided the industry had not done enough to make prices reasonable, and that regulation was needed to serve the interests of customers.

The sentiments echoed those heard in Europe, where the EU telecommunications regulator has issued a series of warnings to mobile operators to cut roaming fees before it becomes necessary to introduce legal price caps. Middle Eastern mobile operators presented the Aregnet meeting with a set of principles they said would reduce prices without government intervention. But those guidelines did not go far enough, the regulators concluded. "The industry has still some way to go in achieving the expectations of the Arab regulators," said Alan Horne, Aregnet's chairman.

The regulators submitted a set of proposals to their respective telecommunications ministers, calling for new rules that would eventually lead to a 36 per cent reduction in roaming charges. "We leave the door open for the industry to come back to us with broader-reaching and more-detailed proposals and measures," Mr Horne said. Since then, the region's largest operators have launched new roaming plans. Saudi Telecom, the largest Arab telecommunications business by market value, launched an international roaming system that offers a fixed-tariff rate for calls made and received in 30 countries around the world including much of the Middle East and western Europe.

The UAE's newest mobile operator, du, has joined the system, as has the UK's Vodafone, giving the network reach to markets like Australia and Egypt. Etisalat has plans to unify the roaming tariffs across the 17 countries it operates in, and has already created a single roaming zone between the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In extending this zone to Etisalat networks in Egypt, Pakistan and India, the company can capture increased business from the movement of expatriate workers and businessmen.

Batelco's plan is unique in that it offers free incoming calls while roaming, a feature not found on other networks. But aside from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq, the roaming network covers countries that are unlikely to be heavily visited by Bahraini mobile subscribers, such as Albania, Slovenia and Ghana. tgara@thenational.ae