Qatar Impact: High Rates Slow Connections

Access to the Internet and mobile communications are perhaps the most important business tools we have. TheEDGE columnist Kamahl Santamaria asks if residents of Qatar are being asked to pay too much for them. As an avid Twitter user, I have noticed something appearing more regularly in my tweet stream recently – the hash tag #QtelFail. It is kind of self-explanatory – indeed the suffix fail has become a popular online meme for people to express their displeasure with any person or company. And it is something that you – as that person or company – ignore at your own peril. I doubt Qtel is ignoring it.Qtel enjoyed market dominance for years. It was simply the only option when it came to phones and Internet in Qatar, but it was also forced to quickly change its approach when Vodafone was awarded Qatar’s second mobile licence in late 2007. That new approach was extremely visible. New-style shops, more services, fresh advertising. All good healthy stuff in a competitive market.

What I wonder though, is has it changed enough for the sake of the country? With Qatar’s new international standing, is Qtel keeping pace with what a growing population expects and needs? Right now, I think the answer is no.

To be fair, there is not much difference in the mobile market. Qtel charges QR0.55 per minute for pre-paid voice calls, and Vodafone Qatar QR0.49. But compare both to Etisalat in the United Arab Emirates, which charges only QR0.30. And it gets worse when you look at Internet access – in my opinion, a business tool just as important, if not more important, than the mobile phone.

The best Internet speed Qtel can offer where I live is two Mbps (megabits per second) at a cost of QR300 a month. But BT in the United Kingdom (UK) provides up to 40 Mbps for about QR143 – half the price.

Perhaps it is an unfair comparison. Qatar is obviously still a very young country, and its infrastructure is going through what amounts to a technological revolution to keep pace with growth levels. And Qtel is stepping up with its new Fibre service, promising speeds of up to 100 Mbps.

But still, pricing is a huge issue. A 100 Mbps connection will cost QR650 a month. Again to use BT as an example, the UK equivalent would cost only QR200. Why does it have to be so expensive here?

Apparently the people of Qatar share the same concerns. Eighty one percent of respondents in an opinion poll in Al Sharq newspaper felt neither Qtel nor Vodafone Qatar were providing a comprehensive nationwide network, and that their charges were very high. Seventy-two percent said there was no real competition and that promotions by the two companies were really just ploys.

Still the focus falls on Qtel, because of its huge responsibility to the country. Without it, Qatar faces being cut off from the rest of the world. That might sound like an overstatement, but an article published in September 2011 in the long-standing American magazine The Atlantic pointed out that Qtel being the exclusive provider of Internet access in Qatar could spell big problems.

It stated Egypt has nearly 200 (Internet Service Providers) ISPs, Syria around 10, and Libya four. With only one here, The Atlantic said: “If Qtel goes down, Qatar disappears off the face of the Web”.

Qtel has a mission statement: To be among the Top 20 telecommunications companies in the world by 2020. And in just the past five years it has made massive strides. There have been investments in Kuwait and Indonesia, and a partnership with a Saudi company to launch Wi-fi services across Asia and Africa.

But its core market is still Qatar, and that goal is now only eight years away. Residents and business owners can only hope that Qtel responds even more rapidly to their needs in that short space of time.

Kamahl Santamaria is a Doha-based news anchor with Al Jazeera English and host of the channel’s business and economics programme Counting the Cost.

This article first appeared in TheEDGE 4.3, March 2012.


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