Telecoms regulator also says new operators could be introduced to boost competition
Bahrain expects to release frequencies for high-speed next-generation telecoms networks in March 2013 and new operators could be introduced to the island kingdom, an official at the regulator said on Tuesday.
Bahrain will invite bids to provide long-term evolution (LTE), or fourth generation, services, from September, Mohamed Mahmood, director for technical and operations at Bahrain's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), told reporters on the sidelines of a conference in Dubai.
These offers will likely be received by January 2013 before a final decision is taken in March, Mahmood said.
The frequencies earmarked for LTE are currently assigned to government bodies. LTE allows for download speeds more than double that of earlier mobile networks.
Bahrain's telecoms sector is already crowded and is arguably the most liberalised in the Gulf, with three mobile operators - Bahrain Telecommunications Co (Batelco), plus units of Kuwait's Zain and Saudi Telecom Co - as well as about 10 internet providers serving a population of about 1.3 million.
But there could be room for new entrants, said Mahmood, with the government yet to decide if the sale of the frequencies for LTE will be opened to companies not yet licensed in Bahrain.
"If the government wants a fourth or fifth mobile operator, then we have to do it," said Mahmood.
He declined to say when LTE services were likely to be launched in Bahrain because this will depend on whether licences were awarded to new or existing Bahraini operators.
"If it's current licencees they can use their current infrastructure, so this will be quick," added Mahmood.
Telecoms is estimated to account for 4.4 percent of Bahrain's economy, while mobile penetration is 133 percent - more than one handset per person.
Such high penetration means subscriber growth is near-flat, spurring a price war on call tariffs between operators that has shrunk voice margins - phoning India is now often cheaper than a local call.
Operators have increasingly targeted data as a means to offset this slump and LTE may boost mobile broadband adoption, which is already the preferred way to access the internet in Bahrain.
Mobile broadband accounted for 44 percent of Internet subscribers in 2011, according to the TRA, up from 24 percent a year earlier to overtake fixed broadband, which now has a 37 percent market share.For all the latest tech news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.