Oman’s telecom companies have come under fire for high prices, weak bandwidth and poor customer care. However, the country’s topography and overcrowded networks aren’t helping their cause. Alvin Thomas investigates.
When Fatima al Bahry, 19, received her first smartphone – an iPhone – from her parents after becoming an engineering student at college in Muscat, she was delighted.
For Fatima, a smartphone wasn’t merely a gadget, it was a symbol of the trust she had earned from her parents. It also reflected her freedom from the restrictions of childhood, when she wasn’t allowed to have a phone of her own.
She could now connect with her friends, some of whom had moved away from Oman for higher education.
“A phone was incredibly necessary after my schooling days. During my upbringing, I wasn’t given a mobile phone of my own as it was a luxury to us. However, I was able to use the landline telephone, which was common to me, and my three elder brothers,” she says.
“I remember that I was given only 15 minutes on the phone every day because, according to my father, telephone bills are expensive.
“So, getting this new device was a blessing; it was a dream come true,” she says.
But, as she points out, she was only getting accustomed to the “deep and expensive world of telecommunications”.
“I currently live with my relatives away from my own home, which is in Quriyat, so I tend to spend a lot of time connecting with my family members and friends daily. The very first app that I downloaded on my phone was WhatsApp [an instant messaging application].
“I use the app to send texts frequently. However, currently, I also spend a lot of time on YouTube, which is my only form of entertainment. I don’t have a television or a laptop to keep myself busy. Since that was the case, I opted for one of the leading service providers here.
“Initially, I wasn’t sure how much to spend on buying an internet data plan here. So, I went with the default, and spent roughly RO5, which provided me with 1GB of internet. Unfortunately, on my iPhone, that just wasn’t enough. Soon, I required a recharge every four days as my phone was eating data quite fast.
“College work was demanding, too, and I was soon spending approximately RO50 to recharge my internet every month. This was not only eating into my pocket money but also hindering my other expenses. In September of last year alone, I remember spending RO20 in three days to complete the research for my college assignments.
“What’s more annoying is that the network range in my residence is woeful and, therefore, I never receive a stable internet speed for browsing or streaming. The sad thing is that I am still paying in full for a service that is sub-par.”
According to Fatima, this was “simply outrageous”, but she says that it was only recently that she became aware of the frustrations of others who are availing themselves of the services from service providers, such as Omantel and Ooredoo, and various other mobile virtual network operators (MVNO), including Friendi, Renna, Allo and the now defunct Samatel – all of which are wireless communication service providers that do not own their own network infrastructure in Oman, and in turn make use of Omantel’s infrastructure to provide consumers with services.
But soon, Fatima learned that she wasn’t fighting the battle alone. Early in October, she received a broadcast message from a group of friends who told her about a boycott that was planned against the many service providers in the country.
“I remember it was sometime in October, and it was a message on WhatsApp that went viral. The message read: ‘A boycott is scheduled on October 10th to push the two companies to provide service worthy of their prices. Between 4-6 pm. We ask you to not make phone calls, not to recharge credits, not to use WiFi or data. If you are at work, set your phone on airplane mode. Also unfollow and block Ooredoo and Omantel’s social media accounts.
“I know it feels like one person won’t make a difference but if we band together, we may coerce these companies to improve phone service in Oman,” the message added.
Says Fatima: “All of my friends decided to take part in the boycott, and needless to say, I did too. And on the 10th of October, we all switched off our devices to express our frustration of receiving sub-par services here.”
The campaign also gained a lot of traction on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, with “Boycott of Omantel and Ooredoo” becoming the trending hashtag on Twitter in the country for more than a week (from October 13).
Numerous residents – mostly youngsters – also took to platforms to express their views on the poor internet packages and customer services, high call prices, as well as the blocking of free-call applications such as Skype and IMO.
Abdul Manaf, another student who took part in the boycott, tells Y: “We all had to stand together to teach these companies a lesson. We did that by disconnecting ourselves from them.”
Another expatriate student, who wished to remain anonymous, says: “I have just moved to Oman recently, and I find the internet rates, and even the speeds to be quite bad.
“I was extremely frustrated initially and just wanted them to take some form of immediate action against these companies.”
Following the boycott and the protests, according to media reports, the heads of both Omantel and Ooredoo were summoned by the Majlis Al Shura in late October.
In an interview with UAE’s Gulf News in October 2016, Hamood Al Yahya, a Shura member representing Dhank province and chairman of the council’s Services Committee, said that the council was holding a discussion with the telecom companies regarding their “services, poor telecommunication networks in many areas and internet packages”.
Al Yahya added that the council was standing by the demands of nationals and residents who had launched the campaign on social media platforms, and also took part (along with other Shura members) in the boycott to show his support to those in protest.
Following the meeting, news of the entry of a third – and new – telecom provider in the Sultanate of Oman broke. In a statement,
Oman’s Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA) stated that it had finished all the procedures for a third telecom provider in the country to “enhance the competition in the telecommunications sector”.
However, no further details or the name of the new telecom provider was provided in the statement. Y contacted the TRA for more information on the new telecom service provider, but a spokesperson declined to comment. Meanwhile, the TRA is urging telecom companies to speed up networks, quality enhancement and bring down the prices of telecom services.
The regulator has urged the telecom firms to conduct surveys in various areas in the country to find out the extent of coverage and follow up on performance issues.
Y also contacted Omantel for a comment, but they had not responded to our request at the time of going to press.
To gain more insight into the situation, Y spoke with Aaron*, an engineer who works in the telecommunications industry in Oman.
Talking about the recent boycott, Aaron says: “I can understand the frustration of those who boycotted the services.
“But I have to tell you this: not everyone is angry with us. There were those who made their point clear to us, too. From their perspective, they wanted to switch off their phones for two hours so that our resources would remain unused for a period of time. They wanted us to suffer a loss, and make some changes.
“But what they forget is that Oman is actually a very well-connected country. We have worked day and night to expand our services across Oman. And this being a very big country, it took decades to reach where we are now.
“Many of those who boycotted us made it very clear that they aren’t receiving adequate services, and how neighbours such as the UAE and other countries in the GCC are providing internet at low rates, and adequate customer service too – but that’s not true.
“The UAE’s telecommunications providers have struggled to provide services to its users efficiently. And if you were to check the rates, they are higher than in Oman.”
A quick check of Etisalat and du’s (the UAE’s leading service providers) rates validates the engineer’s comments. The average price of wireless internet in the UAE is twice as expensive as it is in Oman.
“Of course, the speeds there are quite high. But even we are running our towers at 4G capacity, meaning we are doing just as well as they are,” says Aaron.
“The reason why people sometimes struggle to find stability in connections – especially when they are on the move – is because of the topography of Oman. Even then, we do our best to relay all our signals efficiently without causing anyone any issues,” he adds.
This week, we also asked our readers if they were happy with their home internet service providers and the level of customer care that they provided, to which we received mixed comments.
Ronneil Sales Valiente says he has used two service providers during his time here in Oman, and has found the services to be, at best, variable.
“I have mixed feelings about the service provided by my ISP in Oman,” he says.
“There are only two major companies that are providing internet services in the Sultanate. I have tried both companies and both have their own strengths and weaknesses. Both are expensive when it comes to internet packages offered to customers but we haven’t had the best service from either.
“Since I have experienced home internet services in other countries, I cannot help but compare them. Here in Oman, I am sometimes happy with the ISP that we have now but we often experience a slow connection and technical problems.
“We can call customer service but sometimes their suggestions are not effective and it takes them almost a day to come around and fix any problem.”
Aaron says that the real reason why customer service receives mixed reviews is because service providers are still “struggling to find a balance between supply and demand”.
“Yet again, I have to stress the same point. Oman is a really big country and sometimes we are not able to provide the right amount of customer support to everybody.”
He explains: “We classify each and every region as a zone. So, when you first call the customer service department and lodge the complaint, no action is actually taken immediately.
“Our first task is to classify what the problem you are facing is. Only then do we issue you with a complaint number.
“Once that is done, we forward the complaint to our unified system, which will forward your issue to our respective service departments. For instance: if you call us saying that your internet is slow, we will not send over a technician immediately; it isn’t a viable option. Instead, we give you troubleshooting tips and refresh your signal from our exchange centre.
“But if your case genuinely needs attention, then we will send over our technician to your house. This process may take up to 72 hours – and we still cannot assure you a time and date.
“We work on backlogs, meaning we are still working on cases that are weeks old. So, we may not be able to respond to your problem immediately. But once our technician is at your place, he will assess the issue and try to rectify it.
“Yet again, if the problem is originating from an inaccessible region (underground cables or cables embedded in walls), then the technician will return and forward the issue to a contracting company. This process takes another 48 hours.
“Once the contracting company is notified, they will send over their specialised technician – again – at their pace, to your house. This is probably why people are complaining about our customer and after sales service.
“But there are certain areas where we can provide solutions in less than 24 hours too.”
Reader Eva Mulyana Setiady is extremely happy with her service provider’s after-sales service.
She says: “They [the service provider] promptly respond to complaints, and the technical team responds to problems within the acceptable time period of waiting. Having said that, there is always room for improvement both for customer care and technical support.”
Meanwhile, Jason Felix Noronha adds: “I am pretty satisfied with the quality of my broadband connection at home.
“On a pricing front though, the cost for various services seriously needs to be re-examined as it is way too expensive,” before pointing out that data packages for mobile phones “do not offer value for money”.
A recent report by American networking firm Akamai Technologies put Oman’s average internet speed at 3.1Mbps (Megabits per second), against the global average of 5.6Mbps. This is significantly lower than in other Gulf countries, including the UAE (6.9Mbps), Saudi Arabia (3.4Mbps), Kuwait (4.6Mbps) and Qatar (6.7Mbps).
But the inception and rapid expansion towards fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) services aims to boost the figures. Awasr, Oman’s latest internet service provider, as well as Ooredoo, already offer packages starting at 20Mbps, which is three times faster than today’s average.
“There’s no doubt that fibre optics is the way ahead. We have all been laying the groundwork for bringing this technology into Oman, and as you can see, the prices are extremely reasonable too.
“We are striving to make a change, but as they say: your most unhappy customers are the greatest source to learning. And we are learning, and adapting, to make our customers happy,” says Aaron.
* Aaron’s name has been changed for privacy reasons.
Ooredoo’s network is constantly expanding and today we cover 99 per cent of Oman’s population. Last year alone, we invested RO60 million in expanding our network and enhancing service quality to customers. A substantial amount is being invested in enhancing our 4G internet quality and coverage, with the aim of providing additional value and increasing our 4G and 4G+ footprint, giving speeds of up to 100Mbps and 160Mbps respectively. Our recently completed fibre backbone and unrivalled Superfast Fibre plans provide speeds of up to 1Gbps and we will see up to 180,000 households connected with the service by the end of this year.
We are continuously bringing new offers, products and promotions to the market. We are often the first to market and just some of the innovative new services recently launched include Shababiah in July 2016, Ooredoo Talk, new Shahry Business pack plans and new Home Broadband and Superfast Fibre plans with the best value in Oman.
Customer experience is at the heart of what we do and we place a great deal of emphasis on listening to what our customers need and want. We reach out to them through a range of channels, including social media and the new Ooredoo Oman app so that they can contact us and provide feedback in a way that is most convenient to them.
As part of our ongoing customer-centric initiatives, we raised the bar on CEM last year by becoming the first in the region to implement ResponseTek’s CEM software into our customer service infrastructure. This world-class software provides mass feedback across all customer touch points through a “Voice of the Customer” Listening Platform, giving us insight into market trends in real time, ensure consistency in service delivery, and evaluate the impact of products to enrich the customer experience.
We also engage with customers through a number of online channels, giving customers the chance to provide feedback and engage with us in a way that is most convenient for them. We have seen continuous growth of online followers on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat.