By Richard Agnew
Bahrain's regulator has put consumer protection on the agenda with the planned creation of a telecoms watchdog
|~|bahrain1.gif|~|Andreas Avgousti, the TRA’s new general director|~|With full liberalisation scheduled for July this year, Bahrain’s telecoms market is leading the way in the Middle East in embracing competition.
But the pace set by the Kingdom’s Telecoms Regulatory Authority (TRA) has thrown up its own challenges, including the creation of a framework to ensure that end-users reap the benefits of having more players in the market.
The TRA, therefore, is planning to establish a consumer advisory group that will foster greater involvement of end-users in telecoms policy creation.
Its composition is currently being decided through a consultation process, but its members will be volunteers.
The group will be given independence and tasked with presenting recommendations to the regulator on ways to deal with consumer issues, such as an operator’s code of conduct.
“We have a lot of work to do concerning consumer protection, to make sure competitors do not just come in to make a quick profit and ignore the consumers,” says Andreas Avgousti, the TRA’s new general director.
“[We are trying] to set up the TRA in a way that will meet the needs of the market. We are going to look at consumers’ needs, how they are protected, how their complaints are dealt with and whether there should be a specific body to deal with their complaints,” he adds.
Avgousti also hopes that the move will allow consumers to become more actively involved in the liberalisation process, which has so far focused mostly on the opening up of the sector.
“The group, once established, will… play an important role in formulating policies that take into account the views of users,” he adds.
In time, additional groups will also be created to work with the TRA in other areas of consumer affairs.
One of the subjects in focus will be carrier pre-selection, the facility the TRA is planning to introduce to allow consumers to choose alternative operators in advance to carry their international or other classes of calls, without having to dial a routing prefix.
The TRA hopes this will allow new operators to enter the market, providing greater choice to consumers.
“We are not only consulting about the introduction of carrier pre-selection, but also whether it should be made available for mobile services, for international calls. This will create competition and reduce pricing,” says Avgousti.||**|||~|bahrain2.gif|~|Bahrainis will be able to pre-select carriers for international calls|~|The mobile sector, which saw competition for the first time through MTC-Vodafone’s entrance at the end of 2003, will be also one of the main areas of focus of the group.
But Avgousti says that the effect of the liberalisation of the sector has met the TRA’s expectations so far.
“It has also met the expectations of the public, as well as of the two competitors. We see on a monthly basis new products coming in, which shows people are putting their imaginative caps on. Prices have also been coming down and from what we hear, quality of service is improving,” he adds.
The two operators, however, are yet to agree a permanent deal on interconnection charges for calls sent between networks.
But Avgousti says their discussions are likely to be completed by next month, and points out that further down the line, the TRA has the option to bring in a further licencee if the duopoly structure doesn’t continue to meet the demands of the market.
“I’ve found since I’ve arrived that Batelco and MTC-Vodafone have been cooperative,” says Avgousti.
“[But] we will always be keeping an eye on things to make sure competition develops as one expects. We have a provision in the current legislation, that if competition does not develop and the fact that we only have two mobile licencees appears to [be allowing] them to fix prices, for example, we could issue a further licence,” he adds.
Greater choice for consumers will also come in the guise of licences in other sectors of the market, says Avgousti.
Over the last few months, the TRA has allowed competition in the provision of services via VSAT, public access mobile radio networks, paging, international facilities, value added services (VAS) and internet services in Bahrain.
Currently, it has awarded only a handful of licences in these categories, but the hope is that more competitors will enter once the full range of licences have been opened.
This will take place with the availability of the national fixed and international service licences in July.
“We expect the big time to come after July 1, when international services are made available,” says Avgousti.
“From the point of view of the [ISP] licences, the establishment of the Bahraini internet exchange [in July] will also have a major impact. We expect that once that has been set up, there will be more demand. Slowly, people are coming in and expressing interest in the licences, including companies from the US and Europe, but July 1 will be the big day,” he says.
A consultation is also being carried out on local loop unbundling, meanwhile, which is hoped will attract more service providers to pursue opportunities in the Kingdom’s internet sector.
“This will make internet services available on a wholesale basis to ISPs. Also, in time, if someone with a fixed telephony licence wanted to offer its own network to the whole of Bahrain or only to certain areas, [they could]. But we’ll have unbundling and leave it up to ISPs how they wish to offer the service,” he adds.||**||