There are notable differences in the way telecommunications are regulated across the Middle East.

A comparison of the regulatory frameworks in Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE provides an insight into the distinct licensing obligations facing operators. There are also separate rules governing interconnection and access rights, the importation of equipment, and matters of consumer protection, as well as variations in the enforcement regimes that apply. Here we look at the regulation of telecoms in Bahrain. Other guides look at Qatar and the UAE.

The telecoms market in Bahrain is one of the most liberalised in the region, with a robust and progressive regulatory framework.

Bahrain currently has three mobile operators: Batelco, which is the incumbent operator, Zain and Viva. It also has three national fixed and national fixed wireless service operators: Bahrain Broadband, which offers services under Greenisis brand, Mena Telecom and Zain. There are also a number of internet service providers (ISPs).

Batelco was the first operator in the region to launch a commercial 5G network in mid-2019.

The regulator

The Bahrain Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (Bahrain TRA) was established in 2002 as an independent regulator and is responsible for regulating the telecoms and information technology sector in Bahrain.

Regulated activities and licensing

Chapter 7 of Bahrain Legislative Decree No. 48/2002 Promulgating the Telecommunications Law deals with licensing.

A licence is required to:

  • ·operate a public telecommunications service which is made available to the public;
  • ·operate any network permitting the conveyance of messages, sound, visual images or signals between defined termination points by wire, radio, optical or other electro-magnetic means using a frequency designated for telecommunications use in the National Frequency Plan; and
  • provide a telecommunications service.

Licensees must be incorporated in Bahrain or have a registered branch office in Bahrain.

Licences are typically granted for a term of 15 years and may be renewed for a further 10 years.

Individual licences are granted for the use of radio frequency spectrum, telephone numbers under the National Numbering Plan and for the provision of mobile telecommunications services or internet exchange services. Class licences are typically otherwise granted.

Individual licences require the recommendation of the general director of the TRA following ratification by the TRA's board of directors and are issued with standard terms and conditions, save for differences which are for objectively justified reasons. 

The TRA must be informed within seven days if an entity directly or indirectly acquires a stake of 5% or more in an individual licensee. The TRA has the power to modify and revoke individual licenses under Bahrain Legislative Decree No. 48/2002 and also to modify or revoke a class license but only after advance notice is provided in the Official Gazette.

Equipment importation

Chapter 7 of Bahrain Legislative Decree No. 48/2002 deals with equipment approvals. All RTTE, being telecommunications equipment which connects directly to a public  telecommunications network and/or which is an intentional transmitter of radio waves, is subject to the TRA's type approval requirements.

Local manufacturers, authorised importers and licensed telecoms operators can apply for equipment registration of RTTE. 

Telecommunication dealers who want to import equipment to the Kingdom of Bahrain must apply for custom clearance approvals from the TRA. These clearances include a 'no objection certificate' issued by the TRA only after the equipment has been cross-checked against the associated type approval. In other words, a prior type approval must have been obtained for the equipment being imported.

Access and interconnection

Chapter 11 of Bahrain Legislative Decree No. 48/2002 provides a right of interconnection and access for licensed telecoms operators who in turn must negotiate in good faith on requests for interconnection to its telecoms network at any technically feasible point to the telecoms network of another licensed telecoms operator.

Regulated access and interconnection covers all types of telecommunications facilities and services, including fixed, mobile and satellite facilities and services, but excludes broadcasting.

Dominant operators may only refuse to provide access on the basis of objective criteria related to technical feasibility or maintenance of network integrity.

In addition, telecoms operators determined as being dominant in a particular telecoms market by the TRA are required to publish and regularly update reference interconnection offers (RIOs) which have been pre-approved by the TRA. If the TRA does not approve the RIO, it may issue an order specifying the terms, conditions and tariffs applicable.

RIO terms, conditions and tariffs must be fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory. Tariffs must be based on forward looking incremental costs or based on a benchmark of comparable telecoms markets. The operator must offer interconnection with any other operator on request on the terms, conditions and the tariffs set out in its most recent RIO and must interconnect with the other operator within three days of entering into an agreement, sending a copy to the Bahrain TRA. The terms, conditions and tariffs of interconnection cannot differ between a licensed operator and another, except where objectively justified based on the type of interconnection.

The Bahrain Access Regulation provides a framework for access obligations and the requirements for the publication of a Regulated Activities Order (RAO) by operators that are declared to hold a dominant position in a relevant market.

The Wireless Telecommunications Network Facility Sharing Regulation dated 3 September 2009 implements a sharing regime applicable to all operators that own, manage or lease wireless telecommunications network facilities, requiring them to enter into good faith negotiations to finalise sharing agreements with other licensed operators, on request, with a defined procedure and timescales for finalising the terms of sharing agreement.

The Mobile Termination Position Paper dated 1 February 2010 sets out the position of the Bahrain TRA on the regulation of mobile termination services, including in relation to interconnection arrangements.

Disputes regarding access and interconnection can be referred to the TRA for resolution if the parties are unable to reach agreement within one month.

Consumer protection and rights

Consumer protection in Bahrain is regulated by the Consumer Protection (Telecommunications Services) Regulation dated 4 December 2017 and Bahrain Legislative Decree No. 48/2002, in addition to the general requirements set out in Bahrain Law No. 35/2012 Concerning Consumer Protection.

Bahrain Legislative Decree No. 48/2002 requires the Bahrain TRA to carry out its duties relating to telecoms services in the manner best calculated to protect consumers in relation to tariffs charged for the services, quality of service, availability and provision of services and protection of personal particulars and privacy. However, the Consumer Protection Regulation provide more detailed requirements, including in relation to advertising activity which must be fair, accurate and not misleading. The Regulation provides for the Bahrain TRA to approve any new terms of an operator's service contracts.

Penalties and sanctions for breach of telecoms laws

Chapter 17 of Bahrain Legislative Decree No. 48/2002 deals with penalties and sanctions.  Penalties for breach range from BD 10,000 ($27,000) up to BD 500,000 ($1.33m) and for some violations, and/or imprisonment of between three and six months.

Any corporate entity will be held criminally liable if any of the offences provided for in Bahrain Legislative Decree No. 48/2002 are committed in its name, for its account or by using its equipment or network as a result of an act, material negligence, consent or acquiescence of any board member, director or any other person responsible within that juristic entity or by those acting in such capacity.

Chapter 15 of Bahrain Legislative Decree No. 48/2002 provides that fines imposed on licensed operators for engaging in anti-competitive conduct will not exceed 10% of the operator's annual revenue. The guidelines for the setting of an amount of a fine for violations of article 35 and/or 65 of the Telecommunications Law of the Kingdom of Bahrain dated 16 March 2014 sets out the methodology to be followed by the Bahrain TRA to determine the level of fine imposed for a licensed operator's severe breach of Bahrain Legislative Decree No. 48/2002 or its licence(s) and/or engaging in anti-competitive conduct.