When Hana Hosn moved into her friend's vacant apartment at Dubai Marina she inherited more than just a few spots on the linoleum. She found herself shackled to a cable television provider.
TV viewers battle with lack of choice
When Hana Hosn moved into her friend's vacant apartment at Dubai Marina she inherited more than just a few spots on the linoleum. She found herself shackled to a cable television provider. She is not the only one. Thousands of people move into properties surrounding Dubai's free zone every month, but due to a long-standing agreement between Emaar, the property development company, and du, one of the UAE's two telecommunications companies, they cannot access the latest satellite TV technology and are unable to watch pay-per-view movies or sporting events.
"As a regular consumer or subscriber, I didn't think that it made any sense. I should have the freedom, the right, the option to just go wherever I want," said Ms Hosn, who works in consumer electronics. "In the Marina area, it is a monopoly. There are a few buildings that can have both [du and Etisalat], but the rest of the area is strictly through du." du and Showtime, which runs the pay-per-view television service in the area, say it is a problem they are working on.
du does not consider its exclusive relationship with Emaar developments in the area surrounding Dubai Media City anti-competitive, but many customers there wonder why the cable TV market in Dubai still places so many limits on consumer choice. Their frustration underscores the results of an online survey this year by the research company Real Opinions. It found 56 per cent of du customers and 48 per cent of Etisalat clients were dissatisfied with customer service.
Ms Hosn said du's customer service was "really bad". Her main complaint is that du customers cannot receive Showtime's ShowCinema channels, which, because of technological complications, are available only via satellite dish. The Emaar-owned development restricts most satellite dishes to "where they are not visible from the street", an Emaar spokesman said. This puts ShowCinema out of reach for most residents in the new developments around Dubai Media City.
"With du, you don't get the full package because ShowCinema, for example, is not there with the du package," Ms Hosn said. "If you do it direct with Showtime you get more options. What I don't like is not having the choice." Exclusive rights to supplying Emaar properties with internet, telephone and cable TV were arranged by Tecom Investments before most of the developments, such as The Gardens, The Springs and Dubai Marina, were built.
When du bought the telecommunications assets of Sahm Telecom Network, the information technology subsidiary of Emaar, and Dubai Media City's Tecom Investments in Jan 2006, it inherited exclusive rights to a sizeable chunk of Dubai. As a result, when du launched in February 2006, it already had 19,000 "high value customers" among Dubai's wealthiest newcomers, Farid Faraidooni, du's executive vice president for corporate affairs, said in an email. The monied customer base amounted to a significant beachhead in a city previously dominated by Etisalat.
Asked about the limited Showtime service available to many du customers, Mr Faraidooni said du was working on providing better access to a wider selection of channels. "Showtime has fixed bouquets and pricing schemes which apply to du customers as well. This means, all the Showtime channels that are available on traditional satellite receivers are available on du [internet protocol television] too, in addition to many other Pay TV and free-to-air channels," he said. "Inevitably, as with all providers, some customers request a particular free-to-air or pay-TV channel or content feature, and so du constantly reviews the line-up of channels offered."
Showtime says it is also searching for solutions to give du cable customers access to satellite titles like ShowCinema. "The only difference that we have is that home cinema is not available on the du network, which is obviously just a technicality at the moment," said Damien Blythe, a manager at Showtime. He said du was "just another dealer" with which Showtime contracts service and maintenance to its customers. "At the end of the day, our customers still have the same service, but they are missing [ShowCinema] as an added benefit."
Meanwhile, du and Etisalat are negotiating a "fixed infrastructure sharing agreement" that would allow the two companies, both of which are majority-government owned, to compete for customers over the same wires and cables. "Without adequate sharing agreements in place, du and Etisalat cannot offer services to each other's customers at this stage," said Mr Faraidooni. He said du can only access cable television customers in "certain new developments" in Dubai and some of Dubai's free zones.
It is not clear when such a competitive agreement will be reached between the two highly regulated telecommunications companies. Until then, most of the country is stuck with one or the other service. "I know that Etisalat is better than du, but I live in an area where there's only du," said Omnia Samra, a public relations consultant who lives in the Old Town development in the shadow of the rising Burj Dubai. "I don't feel that there's any competition because I'm just stuck with one of them. So I don't get it - I don't benefit from it."