Telecom Review managed to secure an exclusive interview with H.E. Dr. Mohammed Altamimi, governor of the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), following the publication of a follow up public consultation on CITC’s “Spectrum Outlook for Commercial and Innovative Use 2021-2023”, whereby it plans to release more than 20 GHz of additional radio spectrum.
This progressive spectrum policy adopted by CITC aims to enable Saudi Arabia's transformation into a leading digital society, in line with Vision 2030 and CITC's National Spectrum Strategy (NSS). With this initiative, the Saudi regulator plans to make KSA the first country in the EMEA region to clear TV broadcasting in the 600 MHz and release band 71 for mobile operators; expand the 3.5 GHz 5G deployments in the 28 GHz band; and make the entire 6 GHz band license-exempt to enable WiFi 6e.
CITC is leading a global initiative to foster commercial and innovative use of spectrum, to capitalize on this finite resource. This initiative seeks to enable the digital transformation of the Kingdom and the world, and comes as a part of CITC's transition to become a digital regulator.
In October 2020, CITC launched a new strategy to boost connectivity and drive innovation. Under this new strategy, the Saudi regulator launched a new brand identity that goes in tandem with its plan to become a fifth-generation regulator in the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) rankings, as it progresses from a telecom regulator to a digital regulator. ITU's fifth generation is reserved for the world's most advanced and high-performing ICT regulators. Another ambition for the Kingdom is to break into the top 20 countries for the telecommunications and information technology sector by 2030, improving the sector's performance and contribution to GDP.
Dr. Altamimi delved into the details of the new spectrum outlook and explained how the release of spectrum can put the Kingdom closer to achieving Vision 2030 and the National Digital Transformation plan. Furthermore, he highlighted the role that the CITC has been playing to protect the data of users and prevent cyberattacks that have highly increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“CITC is placing Saudi Arabia’s public sector at the forefront, ensuring that our regulations enable social welfare, public safety and data protection”, he concluded.
CITC released its 2021-2023 spectrum outlook for public consultation last month. What are the main highlights?
Our spectrum outlook aims to provide transparent information for spectrum users. Most importantly, it provides a guarantee to investors in wireless technologies on spectrum availability across different bands while laying out the terms and regulations governing spectrum access and usage. It will boost investment incentives, ensure alignment of spectrum users and CITC and maximize the socioeconomic contribution of spectrum.
We have advanced our regulatory process to include innovative approaches which leverage databases to deliver greater sharing capacity and more flexible access. We have also introduced spectrum trading in a measured manner, which will allow the market to change spectrum ownership and usage. Another key innovation is that we made a variety of bands available for a range of new concepts, from trial licenses to shared and short-term access.
How does this initiative to release more than 20 GHz of additional radio spectrum put the Kingdom closer to achieving Vision 2030?
Transforming Saudi Arabia into a leading digital society is at the heart of Vision 2030 and connectivity and wireless technologies are core enablers for realizing this vision. CITC’s National Spectrum Strategy (NSS) has been designed to unlock the potential of radiocommunications in Saudi Arabia for a smarter and safer future. By efficient management and regulation, we will ensure that all spectrum users in Saudi Arabia will have easy access to the required spectrum, allowing our nation to achieve its ambitions.
This outlook plans to make Saudi Arabia achieve several regional firsts. What are they exactly and how important would such achievements be for the Kingdom and the whole region?
CITC is pioneering a global initiative to foster commercial and innovative spectrum usage and capitalize on this valuable resource. The initiative comes as part of CITC's transition to a digital regulator driving the development of the region and seeks to enable the digital transformation of the Kingdom and the world at large.
We have backed up our intention to become a world class digital regulator by planning to license almost 4GHz of spectrum, the largest amount of spectrum to be licensed in the Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMA) region, which include the 600 MHz and 3800-4000 MHz bands as a regional first. Further examples of Saudi Arabia leading the EMA region for spectrum management is our plan to enable licensing for innovative uses across more than 13 GHz of spectrum, including the 10.5 GHz and the 28 GHz bands, and are consulting the public on making 6.2 GHz of spectrum license-exempt, including the entire 6 GHz band. These achievements will be firsts for the EMA region.
The outlook released is for 3 years, but its impact will last for the next decade. In your opinion, how will such a step revolutionize the telecommunications sector in KSA?
The enhancement of Saudi Arabia’s telecom sector can be attributed to Vision 2030. Over the past four years over $10 billion have been invested in the sector which has lifted Saudi Arabia to be among the top 10 countries in the world for mobile speeds and 5G performance. The implementation of our 2021-2023 spectrum outlook will encourage more investment over the next decade, leading to additional leaps in connectivity, speeds and the digitalization of various verticals in the Kingdom.
Will the release of spectrum be beneficial for new projects in the Kingdom such as NEOM? And how will it impact their success in the near future?
Supporting Saudi Arabia’s giga projects, as laid out in Vision 2030, is a key pillar of CITC’s 2019-2023 strategy. We are working closely with all parties to ensure the realization of these projects that will show the world Saudi Arabia’s connectivity and digitalization capabilities. National spectrum, as a key enabler for 5G technologies, smart cities, the internet of things and automated vehicles will play an integral part in the success of the giga projects.
CITC is responsible for regulating the ICT and postal sector in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. What are the main challenges that exist at the level of the ICT and postal sectors? How do you manage to regulate the sector to guarantee fair competitiveness?
We continue to work relentlessly to adapt to the new realities that challenge policy makers and digital regulators around the world, particularly as digitization has emerged at the forefront of our new norms. CITC aims to remain flexible while driving change and innovation. This is achieved by implementing market-friendly regulation and enabling Saudi Arabia’s transformation into a leading digital society.
For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed new emphasis on the requirement for e-commerce which has become the primary method of retail and requires the most advanced logistics and delivery solutions for efficient and affordable services. We have moved swiftly and quickly to empower this vital sector by enabling the registration of 46 delivery applications that have processed more than 26 million transactions worth over SAR 2B during the 2020 lockdowns. Since then we have released a regulatory sandbox to allow such emerging businesses to blossom in a supportive regulatory environment, which demonstrates CITC’s commitment to constantly update policies in accordance with global best practice and industry developments.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities at the level of cybersecurity. What role does the CITC play here to protect the data of consumers and prevent cyberattacks?
Among CITC’s key mandates is overseeing the cybersecurity and data privacy of the ICT and postal sectors. To deliver this mandate, CITC has issued the Cybersecurity Regulation Framework for Service Providers in the ICT and Postal sectors to regulate and empower cybersecurity practices and to increase the overall Cybersecurity maturity in the sector. Furthermore, CITC has issued the Cybersecurity Incident Handling procedure to regulate incident handling and improve the security readiness in the sector, which has enabled operators to block over 22 million spoofed calls. CITC has also issued personal data protection regulations in May 2020 and is actively overseeing data protection practices implemented by ICT and postal service providers.
The Kingdom is also working towards achieving the goals of its National Digital Transformation plan. How is CITC contributing to the achievement of the plan?
Over the past two years, CITC’s mandate has evolved to reflect the changing technological landscape. We have laid out a path to become a 5th generation digital regulator, the most advanced category according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and to connect our nation for a thriving digital economy. We are working towards these two goals in addition to increasing innovation, inclusivity, sustainability, growth and partnerships with all stakeholders.
CITC’s focus is on leveraging infrastructure investments, removing growth barriers and localization in the ICT sector. We are focusing on regulating the following areas to drive digital transformation at the national level: Ensuring adequate spectrum allocation for international mobile technologies (IMT) usage, fair competition, affordable prices and connectivity. As digitization becomes commonplace across a wide variety of sectors, CITC is exploring new and emerging technologies and markets such as quantum computing, IoT, automated vehicles, blockchain, AI, media convergence, and fintech.
In addition to the release of spectrum, what are your goals for 2021 and beyond?
CITC’s goals are to safeguard the public, provide reliable digital services, ensure fair competition and balance the needs of multiple stakeholders. We will continue to move towards becoming a 5th generation digital regulator and collaborate with more stakeholders, shaping policy not only in telecom but across the broad range of sectors which have integrated ICTs, including healthcare, manufacturing, energy, education, mobility finance and retail. CITC is placing Saudi Arabia’s public sector at the forefront, ensuring that our regulations enable social welfare, public safety and data protection.
In addition, we are continuing efforts to advance several UN Sustainable Development Goals, placing strong emphasis on sustainability by adhering to ITU’s global standards on sustainability. As we continue to reach our goals and pass milestone after milestone, CITC is on track to be one of the most advanced 5th generation regulators in the world.