September 19, 2021

Lessons learned from the pandemic- Saudi digital infrastructure

Case Study By

H.E. Dr. Mohammed Altamaimi

Governor of the CITC, Saudi Arabia

State of Broadband 2021

The ideas and opinions expressed in this insight are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of ITU and UNESCO or the Broadband Commission. The mention of specific companies, products or services does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by ITU or UNESCO or Broadband Commission in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed life, as we know it, and has taught us many lessons. 
One key lesson we have learned from the pandemic is that the prioritization of deploying next generation networks paid off: the core design feature of digital infrastructure, namely its design to handle peak loads in busy periods, meant that service providers and regulatory/governmental bodies were able to ensure continuity of services.

Measures to smooth demand and flex supply (the accelerated release of additional, temporary spectrum) played an important part: in Saudi Arabia for example, the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) acted quickly to provide Saudi mobile service providers with temporary licenses to use an additional 40 MHz in the 700 MHz and 800 MHz bands.

CITC recognizes that the importance of upgrading digital infrastructure lies in both increased capacity and functionality that next generation networks bring and consequently, as part of its National Spectrum Strategy, CITC published proposals in 2021 to allocate or improve access to more than 23 GHz of spectrum for a wide range of uses: 4 GHz of which will be licensed, 6.2 GHz will be license-exempt, and more than 13 GHz will be lightly licensed. Allocating this spectrum in this flexible manner will both help mobile operators cope with the ongoing huge increase in mobile broadband traffic and help Saudi Arabia on its path to transform itself to a digital society.

CITC’s policy of technology neutrality encourages innovative use of spectrum from different wireless standards and does try to pick winners or forecast use cases. By making 1200MHz of spectrum in the 6GHz band available for unlicenced use, CITC expects Wi-Fi 6E and Wi-Fi 7 to deliver big leaps in Wi-Fi performance, unencumbered by legacy Wi-Fi use in the legacy 2.4 GHz and 5GHz bands. At the same time, the 6GHz band can be simultaneously used for IMT purposes to complement licenced band radio transmission.

In addition, the pandemic taught us that the transformation into a digital society requires a ‘wider lens’ to be used than one that focuses on connectivity. The digital economy is increasingly the economy and the pandemic showed that it has the attributes of a critical utility.

The pandemic also highlighted gaps in access and use within and between nations. Despite the investment in digital infrastructure, these gaps persist around access, adoption and use of online services. This is why CITC has identified rural coverage as a top priority and it is currently engaged in a number of initiatives to close the digital gap. In rural areas, coverage is often limited to just one operator and our national roaming initiative will enable end users to benefit from coverage from multiple operators while enabling operators to extend their coverage without inefficient duplication of network deployments in economically challenging areas.
 Another lesson we have learned from the pandemic is that the digital transformation of the economy will lead to new business models, new value chains and new technologies that will revolutionize how sectoral and cross-sectoral regulators, policy makers and industry stakeholders interact. 

This transformation will require regulatory bodies to evolve and adapt in terms of how they work, their toolkits and how they collaborate with each other and other players in the digital ecosystem.

Regulatory bodies also need to evolve their models of collaboration from a sector focused to a holistic model to ensure that areas of regulation such as licensing are both seamless and not duplicative. Such a model will also identify any gaps in protecting consumers and ensure a level playing field for competitors irrespective of technological changes.

To this end, the relevant regulatory bodies in Saudi Arabia including CITC have established a National Regulatory Committee that will bring together core regulators to collaborate on ICT and digital cross-sectoral topics like AI, FinTech, Blockchain, smart cities and the role of data in the business models of large digital platforms.

The Commissioners’ case studies and articles reflect the views of their authors alone and do not reflect the views of the Broadband Commission