Last month marked a major leap forward for the Gulf’s telecoms sector with operators in Saudi Arabia and the UAE launching LTE networks. Just a couple of years ago, LTE in the region was little more than hot air, with operators talking about the technology and its potential while the reality seemed a long way off.
In the UAE, Etisalat soft launched its network to the LTE-FDD standard, which allows for fully mobile broadband speeds of up to 100Mbps. In Saudi Arabia, STC, Mobily and Zain launched LTE-TDD, which may be more limited in terms of mobility, but nevertheless also allows for speeds of around 100Mbps.
With these launches, the four operators are treading new ground and are among the first operators in the world to deploy LTE.
Etisalat’s LTE launch was staged at an impressive event in Abu Dhabi, during which senior members of the management team demonstrated the capabilities of the network live to the audience.
As part of the demo, Matthew Wilshire, Etisalat’s chief marketing officer, downloaded a 2Gb file in less than 40 seconds and allowed the audience to watch 24 simultaneous live video streams, all on the same connection.
While impressive, the demonstration also led to the question of just what people will do with all of this additional capacity. But that is a question that is likely to become redundant as LTE devices appear on the market and new services appear that make use of LTE’s bigger and more reliable capacity.
It seems clear that peoples’ expectations of mobile broadband will continue to rise, and just as most internet users are now accustomed to having broadband speeds of 8Mbps and above, so they will also expect consistent broadband speeds over mobile. The services launched by the four operators in the Gulf will be able to deliver this, and much more.
In the initial stages, each of the new LTE services will be used via dongles, with devices such as LTE smartphones and tablets still about six months away. When those devices appear, early adopters and heavy 3G users are sure to make use of the service.
But while the launches were great news for the Gulf, some challenges remain. Matthew Reed, a senior analyst for the Middle East and Africa at Informa Telecoms & Media (ITM), said that there are only about two million LTE subscribers worldwide at present, and ITM does not expect LTE to become a mass-market technology until 2013.
As Reed told CommsMEA: “Additionally, important areas of the LTE ‘ecosystem’, such as the availability of devices, are still under-developed. Taking these factors into account, it is likely that take-up of LTE services in the UAE will initially be limited to a niche market of high-end business and consumer users.”
There is a also a big question mark around the spectrum allocation for LTE. Earlier in the year, Marwan Zawaydeh, chief technology officer, Etisalat, said that the operator planned to launch its LTE service on 2.6 gigahertz spectrum.
Although this spectrum has the advantage of widespread support from vendors, Zawaydeh admitted that it would prove expensive and would fail to meet coverage requirements, particularly for indoor use.
In the short to medium term, Etisalat is likely to find ways around this, possibly by offloading some of its data traffic indoors.
But these issues are relatively small points when set against the achievements of Etisalat, Mobily, STC, and Zain in deploying LTE networks so early.