x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The UAE is all wired up for the Web - but not immune to slow speeds

As the world's leading nation in fibre-to-the-home connectivity, the UAE's telecoms system compares favourably to those in the First World. Yet broadband services have been hit by cable cuts and an increasing demand for data.

The UAE’s telecoms sector, boasting millions of subscribers, is now one of the most advanced in the Middle East. Jaime Puebla / The National
The UAE’s telecoms sector, boasting millions of subscribers, is now one of the most advanced in the Middle East. Jaime Puebla / The National

Over the past few years Etisalat and du have deployed more than 3 million kilometres of fibre-optic wires in the UAE.

That is enough cable to go around the world 75 times, quite an impressive feat for a country that was founded only 41 years ago.

The UAE is officially the world's most connected nation in terms of fibre-to-the-home (FTTH), providing faster connectivity over traditional infrastructure where the last mile is usually made up of copper wires.

"To have a FTTH network that is nationwide is a remarkable achievement," says Matthew Reed, the principal analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media.

"It means that the UAE has one of the most advanced broadband infrastructures in the world.

"The correlation between high levels of broadband penetration and connectivity are evident in economic and social development," says Mr Reed.

The telecoms sector is now one of the most advanced, not just in the UAE, but across the Middle East region. Telecoms subscribers numbered some 30,000 to 40,000 back in the 1970s, now they are in the millions.

In the early days only a few privileged households had a telephone, analogue models with rotary dials.

Today, the UAE boasts a 230 per cent mobile penetration rate as hordes sport the latest smartphones and tablets, browsing the internet, which has been available since 1995.

Britain's Cable & Wireless, which traces its history to the 1860s, was one of the initial telecoms providers along with Sweden's Ericsson, which won the contract to modernise Etisalat's old analogue systems to digital telephony, helping the operator, known as Emirtel back then, to launch the Middle East's first mobile network in 1982.

In a bid to open up the telecoms market and create greater competition, the UAE's second mobile operator du was launched in 2006 and began operating in 2007. Within nine months of its launch, du had managed to capture 22 per cent of the market with 1 million customers. The operator now has more than 5 million customers as of last month.

The move to launch du was welcomed but the Government still retains a majority shareholding in both operators, rendering the telecoms sector a state-owned duopoly.

"The UAE has been a very interesting country and market for us," says Carlo Alloni, the executive vice president and head of operations at Ericsson Middle East.

"The Government has been extremely visionary in deploying fantastic infrastructure, better than First World countries.

"The UAE has been at the forefront of technology since its creation. It is not so common to have it so well developed in the rest of the Middle East."

Investments in infrastructure, not just in technology, but roads, airports and housing, have spurred economic and intellectual development.

"When you have the right fundamentals, the ICT [information and communications technology] sector develops exponentially," says Mr Alloni.

The infrastructure the UAE has built up over the past 41 years has enabled it to become a hub for the rest of the region and wider world.

Many international firms now use the country as a base for operations in the Middle East, its telecoms infrastructure providing a reliable method to communicate with the rest of the world.

Etisalat launched high-speed internet broadband long-term evolution, also known as 4G, last year with speeds of up to 100 megabits per second.

It was one of the first operators in the region to do so.

This year, du launched its own 4G services. Subscription is still low, but growth is expected to be healthy over the next few years as demand for data increases.

Despite the advanced infrastructure, the country is not immune from poor connectivity and slow speeds. Over the past few years the two operators have been hit by marine cable cuts caused by ships anchoring over cables and damaging them. This can take down an entire network and speeds slow down significantly as traffic is re-routed elsewhere across the globe.

Moreover, increasing demand for data has also impeded speeds.

"Poor leveraging of reasonable amounts of data is another cause. There can also be contention in FTTH networks, depending on the actual architecture of the fibre network [since] there are several possible permutations, so it is a possibility that users might not get the connection speeds they were expecting because of the number of users in the same particular locality," says Mr Reed.

The filtering of the internet by the Government also plays a part in reducing internet speeds by the time it reaches the end-user.

As for the future, "We will see an increase in data pipes and they're going to be used for videos and TV fibre to the home. Going forward we will get more data inside homes," says Mr Alloni.

This is likely to spur on greater demand for content, especially Arabic content.

"The UAE has in many ways, a mature telecoms market now," says Mr Reed

"There's already advanced infrastructure in place, so the focus is now more on services for the operators. The market is looking to be more focused on content and services that is delivered over these networks," he adds.

"It is not clear who will be clear players. Maybe it won't be the operators themselves, but they'll probably have some role."