There is not enough Arabic content on the internet to take full advantage of newly built broadband networks in the region, says the chief strategist of Etisalat.
Arabic content trails internet's technology advances
There is not enough Arabic content on the internet to take full advantage of newly built broadband networks in the region, says Ali al Ahmed, the chief strategist of Etisalat, the UAE's largest telecommunications company. More people in the Middle East are heading online to read their news, watch videos and engage socially, but only 1 per cent of all content online is in Arabic, creating a void that many media companies are attempting to fill, an Arab Media Outlook report says.
Mr al Ahmed said the UAE was about to complete a Dh5 billion (US$1.36bn) fibre-optic country-wide network this year. Egypt and Lebanon have recently announced significant investments in their own internet infrastructure. "The technology is becoming more developed than the content itself," Mr al Ahmed said on the sidelines of this year's Arab Media Outlook panel discussion. Meanwhile, telecoms companies around the world are increasingly developing their own content or partnering with media producers to offset shrinking revenues from increased competition and voice-over-internet protocol applications such as Skype.
"When we talk about content development, telecommunication companies should not be marginalised," Mr al Ahmed said. "To get to the subscribers we must also contribute to the production stage. If we do not work together on this level, I don't think content will reach people." Ali Jaber, the dean of the Mohammed Bin Rashid School for Communication at the American University in Dubai, said advances in the quality of internet networks in the region had made collaboration between industries developing media content online a necessity.
"When we talk about content, we need ways of communication to convey the idea so that writers in Khartoum can communicate with producers in Lebanon or Dubai," Mr Jaber said. Broadband usage in the region is expected to grow at an annual rate of 25 per cent until 2013, figures from the Arab Media Outlook show. About 6 million internet users in the Middle East - or about 12 per cent of the total online population in the region - have access to broadband networks. Although recent research reports have determined that the Middle East's internet connectivity is among the poorest in the world, methods to improve broadband quality are beginning to materialise.
Both Etisalat and its rival telecoms company du have begun to step into the field of content generation, producing iPhone applications and value-added services such as a music portal that may not yield significant revenue but is aimed at retaining subscribers. Etisalat in October launched Weyak, a multimedia service that lets subscribers buy music and dedicated multi-player video game connections. "Online services constitute less than 2 per cent of revenues for us," Mr al Ahmed said. "But we cannot create them solely by ourselves. Right now we take it out from the shelf and customise it. That needs to change."
Meanwhile, du will help launch an Arab online platform for content providers in the first half of this year. In December, du partnered with Eurosport to develop an Arabic-language sport news website. Other regional operators such as Zain and Saudi Telecom offer subscribers a paid mobile music download service. @Email:email@example.com