Fight for revenues becomes more diverse as UAE mobile penetration heads to saturation.
Telecoms battle on whole new turf
Etisalat and du are competing over non-traditional telecommunications services including online content and eBooks to counter the slowdown in mobile subscriber numbers.
Etisalat this week reported a 23 per cent decline in third-quarter earnings, compared with the same period last year, caused primarily by fierce competition brought on by its main rival du.
The UAE's largest telecoms operator added only 10,000 mobile subscribers to its business as its share of the domestic market fell below the two thirds mark.
"We believe that the UAE's mobile voice market is nearing full penetration and, in the absence of special promotional offers, both operators will find it difficult to add mobile subscribers in the numbers they historically have done," said Irfan Ellam, a telecoms analyst with Al Mal Capital.
"Both operators will need to start stimulating usage rather than headline subscriber growth."
To offset the decline in profits brought on by the saturated market, Etisalat plans to launch as many as 350 consumer and business services by the end next year, including video calling, mobile stock trading and on-demand TV.
Abdulla Hashim, the senior vice president of business solutions at Etisalat, estimated non-traditional telecoms services could generate as much as half of the company's revenues by 2013.
"The roadmap is full of services," Mr Hashim said. "If we don't do it, we'll be eaten alive. At the end of the day, we want to keep the ownership and relationship with the customers."
Etisalat has targeted nine sectors for which it will provide services in the future including health, financial and banking services, and education.
"It's in line with our strategy to push more mobile data," Mr Hashim said. "We have noticed that voice revenues are declining so we are pushing more mobile data. Voice will not disappear but as a service it will not be an accommodating service."
Etisalat's main rival, du, is opting for a more web-oriented approach. It will try to attract online users across the Arab world through its website Anayou and provide music, videos, gaming, news and a social network similar to Facebook.
The venture will generate revenue mainly through online advertising and other revenue-sharing agreements.
Mario Pino, the director for business development and strategy at Etisalat, said the new services would start to be introduced in December.
One of the services includes high-quality voice calls, said Mr Pino
"We're coming out with advanced voice … the voice quality will be amazing," he said. "We're going to take the whole telephone line and make it a little more exciting."
Other features will be centred around "digital home" technology, where electronic devices are linked by Wi-Fi around the home.
This could include internet-connect television, as well as linking radio and digital cameras, Mr Pino said.
Part of Etisalat's role would be "enabling" and "providing the hardware in the home", he said.
Video calling may be another new service. "The digital home is everything connected through the gateway … the service could be a video call." The operator also plans to launch a "video on demand" (VOD) function by the end of the year.
"The new generation platform is coming up. That will definitely have a video-on-demand component," said Mr Pino.
The new VOD service, which he said would launch "by the end of this year, in December this year at the latest", will include subscription and pay-per-view options.
It will also include a personal video recorder service.
"For sure you'll see the catch-up [service], which means you can go back seven days and watch something you've missed," Mr Pino said.