In 2016, the government of Saudi Arabia (Kingdom) revealed Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to reform all economic sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, and tourism. Key objectives for the Kingdom were to diversify the economy, reduce dependence on oil and increase the involvement and capacity of Saudi people in delivering this remarkable and most progressive plan ever initiated on a nation level.
The Communications and Information Technology (ICT) is at the core of the National Transformation Program (NTP) under Vision 2030. Realising that change should start from the public sector, the government arms related to the ICT sector have taken giant leaps in the last two years to fulfil the objectives of the NTP.
The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MoICT) spearheaded the project with many of the reforms, initiatives and programmes launched by the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC). The goal was to pave the way for a modern, dynamic, and productive ICT ecosystem that would boost the attractiveness and competitiveness of the sector on a global level, resulting in the building of the foundations of an advanced digital economy.
Many regulatory tools have been introduced or updated in order to facilitate digital transformation and enhance the ICT infrastructure and services to meet the ultimate goal of modernising the Kingdom economy. These include the IoT regulatory framework, the Saudi Domain Name Registration Regulation, Cyber Security Regulatory Framework for Service Providers, Regulations for the Saudi National Internet Exchange, and updated technical specifications for communication and information technology devices and equipment.
The series of changes were also extended to the fundamental finite scarce resource (‘the radio spectrum’), which is a key element in enabling digital transformation. Enhancing telecom infrastructure and providing the necessary resources to spread it over the Kingdom’s most developed and underdeveloped regions, is in the centre of the CITC efforts. The CITC realised early on that establishing short-and long-term sustainable plans for managing spectrum is the key to success.
The jewel of the crown, if I may say, is the Spectrum Strategy 2025, which aims to unlock necessary radio spectrum by 2025 to facilitate a smooth transition to a promising and bright future. The Spectrum outlook for Commercial and Innovative Use 2021-2023 is the immediate product of the strategy, and the outlook draws a detailed roadmap to enable access to more than 23 GHz of the spectrum to different applications and services like IMT, Wi-Fi, Space-based, Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), Broadcasting, PMSE, among others. Nevertheless, the CITC listened carefully and accommodated divergent views to conclude a balanced and fair approach to enable all these services with sufficient protection for their operation through establishing clear guidelines and measures. For that purpose, the CITC introduced three main licensing regimes: licensed, lightly licensed and licence exempt. All these regimes have deep and proven roots in other jurisdictions around the globe.
One of the most remarkable achievements was introducing Wi-Fi 6E on 1200 MHz of the spectrum in the 6 GHz and future Wi-Fi 7. The Kingdom was the first country in EMEA to support users’ urgent need for bandwidth that would enable local applications such as VR and AR. Before permitting full access to 1200 MHz, an initiative was launched by the CITC by end of 2020 to provide 60,000 free Wi-Fi hotspots in some public locations across the Kingdom for free of charge access. Europe took several months later to consider Wi-Fi access to the full 6 GHz band, in fact, the ECC closely watched developments in the Kingdom along with many other regulators globally.
Backhauling was also reengineered; the fixed links regulatory framework has evolved and been publicly consulted to accommodate immediate needs for backhauling networks as well as access using millimetre waves (Microwave bands). The CITC realised that the most economical option to support access is fixed links. Therefore, the CITC suggested an overhaul to its fixed links policy, which I believe would exploit the radio spectrum to accommodate greater bandwidths and higher data rates, enhancing the user experience.
Was that enough? No! On other fronts, the CITC competes with itself to enable access to mobile spectrum in different bands, regulate spectrum trading, finalise the light licensing regime, and progress spectrum auctions. I expect the CITC will continue developing its policies and regulations. As an observer, what we are witnessing − without exaggeration − is the biggest ICT regulatory reform process in the last decades.
The CITC scored full marks in taking serious steps towards concluding a national agenda for the radio spectrum in consultation with national and foreign stakeholders along benchmarking with the best international practices. The best quality, in my opinion, is that the CITC is determined to institute transparency as a model for policymaking.
The Saudi human capital, who play a vital role in the reform, should be recognised and highly praised. It is not a secret that many CITC personnel work until late, even during weekends, with one goal in mind; making the Kingdom a better place for citizens, residents, and businesses.