World Bank Calls for More Competition in Arab World Internet Services

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The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries lag behind when compared with other regions in the development of broadband networks internet access and use and creation of digital content according to the World Bank.

According to World Bank report, open competition and policy and regulatory changes could transform the region into a global leader in high speed internet.

"The Middle East and North Africa region has been the cradle of science and technology and can again use modern technology to address the contemporary problems faced by the region," said Inger Andersen, World Bank Vice President for the MENA region. "We at the World Bank Group are committed to working closely with all countries in MENA to improve access and quality of broadband internet connection."

The report highlights how broadband drives economic development and is core to the competitiveness of nations. However, high speed internet penetration is low in MENA compared to emerging regions in Europe and Asia. With the exception of Gulf countries, where internet access is available to broad segments of the population, in many countries of the Arab world fewer than a quarter of households have access to this essential tool. The report says that millions of people cannot afford internet services and are therefore excluded from the information revolution that is shaping the modern world.

In Morocco and Tunisia, low-income households would need to pay about 30 to 40 percent of their income to afford fixed or mobile broadband services. In Yemen, the poorest 40 percent of the population would need to spend over half of their income for mobile high speed internet. In Djibouti, the cost of fixed and mobile broadband can cost a multiple of a monthly income of the poorest 60 percent of the population.

"The Arab world is facing slower economic growth and high unemployment especially among young people and women," said Carlo Maria Rossotto, World Bank ICT Regional Coordinator in the MENA region and co-author of the report. "Broadband can radically change the socio-economic prospects for the region and contribute to higher growth and shared prosperity."

The study is a "first" in terms of assessing the endowments of untapped fiber optic networks belonging to energy, electricity and transport utilities, and their potential contribution to the development of affordable internet services. If used more optimally, these networks could boost broadband access, including in rural areas. With 49,000km of fiber optics deployed by Algerie Telecom and over 20,000km owned by utilities, Algeria stands out as a potential regional leader. Also, Libya has extensive fiber optics networks owned by oil and gas companies that can play an important role for internet development.

The report highlights policy recommendations for MENA countries eager to engage in broadband sector reform.

These recommendations include boosting local competition between different telecom service providers to allow them to offer broadband to a larger number of people using new platforms. Exploring new models of public private partnerships would increase the efficiency of operating and expanding broadband networks at a local level. Sharing unused fiber optic cables among utility networks would also reduce the cost of new broadband deployment and increase the resilience of existing networks. Moreover, the provision of incentive structures could significantly improve the feasibility of rolling out broadband services to underserved areas. For example, introducing incentives in the real estate industry could ensure that high speed internet is provided to newly built neighborhoods and buildings. Additionally, implementing policies to increase the provision of high speed internet in rural and underserved areas could promote digital literacy and stimulate greater economic opportunities and social inclusion.

 According to Rossotto, "Investing in broadband networks could create thousands of new jobs in infrastructure, while at the same time, developing a platform for broad-based, knowledge-driven employment in the region."

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