x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A push for telecoms rivalry

The UAE's telecommunications regulator wants the country's internet operators to start accessing "dark fibre" connections to promote broadband competition for the benefit of consumers.

The UAE's telecommunications regulator wants the country's internet operators to start accessing "dark fibre" connections to promote broadband competition for the benefit of consumers. Dark or "unlit" fibre refers to fibre-optic cables that have been laid but which are not in use. Such cables are essential to connecting Etisalat's national broadband network with du's Web connection in Dubai and allowing both operators to compete with each other in the UAE's internet market.

"They need to allow each other to have access to dark fibre to utilise each other's networks," Mohamed al Ghanim, the director general of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, said yesterday on the sidelines of the Broadband Global Summit in Dubai. "We are pushing them to do it. It's part of access sharing." The move is viewed by analysts as a step forward in the UAE's long-awaited establishment of a competitive broadband market.

"If you look at any other part of the world where competition has worked, and has driven down prices, it's not generally based on any network sharing access. It is based on the operators' ability to build their own dark fibre and provide their own access," said Julian Herbert, a broadband analyst with Informa Telecoms and Media. The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is currently the only place in the UAE where residents have a choice of broadband providers. Etisalat and du say the general introduction of choice for consumers will occur this summer.

Connecting the networks to the unused dark fibre connections will solve the problem of providing high-speed broadband access directly to households, which industry experts describe as hooking up the "last mile". "Everyone is talking about the 'last mile', which is a real problem," Mr al Ghanim said. "This is what is important, because the customer demand in the UAE is beyond anybody's expectations. They are very hungry for bandwidth and hopefully they will get it soon."

Ali al Ahmed, the group chief strategy officer for Etisalat, said the company was caught off guard by the demand for broadband access and had seen its network capacity grow at an annual rate of 84 per cent. "We realised that building the network, all these highways, it reflects on the entire business model," Mr al Ahmed said. "Once you lay the fibre cable and provide the infrastructure for high-speed broadband and fibre-to-the-home, that will have an impact on the usage, and consumer behaviour changes."

During a speech, Mr al Ahmed said operators needed to understand what equipment was being used on their networks, how that affected revenues and what kinds of applications and services they could bundle in their broadband offerings. Executives from Saudi Telecom and Mobily also said the emergence of broadband had changed their country's telecommunications market almost overnight. Recent reports suggest that more users will sign up for wireless connections than broadband access, making Saudi Arabia the first wireless society in the Gulf.

"We don't see ourselves as a telecom provider any more," said Saad al Qahtani, the vice president for residential sector services at Saudi Telecom. "We're becoming a lifestyle provider." @Email:dgeorgecosh@thenational.ae