AMMAN // A concerted push from the telecommunications industry and regional governments was needed to ensure high-speed internet becomes a common feature in households across the Arab world, industry figures said yesterday. Less than 50 per cent of the population of the UAE has internet access, even though the country has the highest internet penetration in the region.
That percentage drops to 22 per cent in Qatar, 14 per cent in Oman and less than 7 per cent in Egypt, according to data from the Arab Advisors Group, a research firm. While phone lines reach most homes, many customers do not subscribe or share a line with their neighbours, said Jawad Abbassi, the general manager of Arab Advisors. That means fixed-line operators still have the best opportunity to capture millions of new internet customers.
"If they are visionary enough to leverage their last-mile dominance, they should be getting the lion's share of new broadband customers," Mr Abbassi said. Others said mobile operators were best placed to take high-speed internet to homes not served by landlines. And specialist wireless internet providers are emerging as a force in the industry. "We can build a competitive carrier for the fraction of the cost and in much less time than the legacy networks," said Michael Penner, the chief executive of Kulacom, one of Jordan's newly licensed wireless broadband providers.
The company transmits internet over the air using the WiMAX standard, a technology similar to the 3G system used by mobile networks. Jordan has licensed five new companies to provide internet over WiMAX within the kingdom, as part of a government plan to stimulate competition and increase use of high-speed internet. "The incumbent providers have been pressured by the presence of an alternative," Mr Abbassi said. "They have slashed their prices and improved services.
"Now in Jordan you can get an ADSL line, all inclusive, for about US$22 (Dh80). Jordan Telecom [an incumbent provider] wouldn't have slashed the prices so rapidly if it was the sole operator in the market." Although WiMAX was once viewed as a competitor to 3G mobile networks, there is now a general consensus in the industry that the successor to the 3G system, known as Long Term Evolution (LTE), will become the future standard.
But it will be years before LTE becomes commonly available. Until then the WiMAX system, already commercially introduced in countries throughout the Middle East, represents the best option for bringing fast internet to areas not served by landlines, Mr Penner said. "It's here and I can say unequivocally that it works," he said. "We're not going to wait three years for another technology to come along. We're going to go out there today and make it happen."
Jeremy Foster, the Middle East marketing director for Ericsson, a mobile network equipment maker that is a prominent promoter of LTE, said he was sceptical that WiMAX could become an effective system for delivering fast internet to the mass market. "The devil is in the details," Mr Foster said. "One of the big problems in the Middle East is that all the buildings are made of concrete and often when WiMAX providers are talking about cell sites covering an area, they are talking about covering the outside of the building.
"Our technical guys tell us that to get to the same coverage today as 3G, you need three to four times as many WiMAX sites. If companies can make a case out of delivering WiMAX, happy days. But my advice is, go and visit an existing WiMAX operator, see the consumer experience for yourself, and if this matches what you want for your customers, go for it." email@example.com