x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

STC and Mobily dispute speed record

Saudi Arabia becomes first Middle East country to offer high-speed 4G mobile broadband on a commercial basis.

The Saudi operators Mobily and Saudi Telecom Company said this week they had launched LTE network services. Waseem Obaidi
The Saudi operators Mobily and Saudi Telecom Company said this week they had launched LTE network services. Waseem Obaidi

Telecommunications customers in Saudi Arabia look set to benefit from high-speed mobile broadband, with three operators claiming to have launched next-generation networks there.

Long-term evolution (LTE) networks offer connections of up to 100 megabits per second - more than double the speed of the fastest 3G connections.

However, details of LTE packages in Saudi Arabia are sketchy, leading some analysts to warn of one-upmanship between telecoms companies.

The operators Mobily and Saudi Telecom Company (STC) said this week they had launched LTE network services.

A third operator, Zain Saudi Arabia, said its faster wireless internet services had launched in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam, and would be available nationwide by the end of next year, Bloomberg News reported.

All three operators claimed the crown for being the first regional operator to launch such services in the Middle East do so, according to press reports.

However, STC and Zain provided few details of packages - leading some analysts to doubt whether the availability of the new services was widespread.

"I think it's a bit of a PR exercise going on," said Matthew Reed, an analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media. "It's not totally clear that they have made a commercial service available."

Mr Reed said there was an issue concerning the frequency on which LTE mobile broadband operated.

"In Saudi Arabia that particular spectrum is being used by the military, so there is a long process under way to shift it," he said.

"Only Mobily is really in a position to launch. Mobily's claim is credible, although it is not totally clear from the offer information on their website."

However, network specialists confirmed the systems were in place to offer LTE mobile over parts of the kingdom.

Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) confirmed it had built a mobile network in the country's western region on behalf of STC, which allows the operator to provide "commercial 4G mobile services".

While Saudi Arabia looks set to be the first country in the Middle East to offer faster mobile broadband, other countries are set to follow.

NSN said it was in talks over next-generation mobile networks with telecommunications operators across the region, including Etisalat and du in the UAE.

"We are talking to most of the key mobile broadband networks," said Mohamed Abdelrehim, the head of mobile broadband services for the Middle East and Africa at NSN. "There are several contract negotiations that are taking place right now.

"We are also in discussion with major operators in the UAE, in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

"We expect Etisalat to launch LTE here in the UAE soon. Du has also said it is going to launch."

The main market for such services would be broadband for laptops - via a plug-in USB dongle - and tablets, Mr Reed said.

The number of LTE mobile connections in the Middle East is forecast to grow sharply over the next five years. Informa predicts subscription growth from 100,000 this year to 14.56 million in 2016.

bflanagan@thenational.ae