Blazing a trail

How the UAE became a world leader in telecoms in just 40 years
Competition, Operators


Since 1971, the year that the United Arab Emirates was formed by the seven Emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, Ras al-Kaimah, and Fujairah, the country’s telecoms sector has changed beyond all recognition. In 1971, fixed-line telephone penetration was negligible, and the Etisalat brand did not yet exist.

Indeed, as the archive photograph in this report shows, the Dubai Telecom Company, which would later become part of Etisalat, received its first landline telephone call in 1960, just 11 years before the founding of the UAE.

While the country’s telecoms sector may have been many years behind its Western counterparts at its formation, the intervening 40 years have seen a sea-change that has led the UAE to become one of the world’s telecom leaders. Indeed, in the past few years, the UAE has been a pioneer of fixed-line, mobile and satellite communications: Abu Dhabi recently became the first city in the world to be fully covered by an FTTH network; Etisalat launched the region’s first mobile LTE network; and Yahsat launched its first satellite, Y1A.

In the following pages, CommsMEA looks at the development of the UAE’s telecoms sector in chronological order, the formation of Etisalat in 1976, to the launch of LTE in Abu Dhabi earlier this year.

1976: Foundation of Etisalat by Federal Decree between International Aeradio Limited, a British Company, and local partners, just five years after the creation of the UAE.

1979: Etisalat’s fixed-line customers exceed 90,000.

1981: Etisalat sets up Digital Local Switching.

1982: Etisalat is the first operator in the region to launch cellular services.

1984: Launching of directory inquiry services.

1986: Completion of Arabsat platform station.

1989: Etisalat converts all exchange to digital technology, being the first in the region. It also founds the Etisalat University College.

1990: Etisalat starts operations through Etisalat Cable Ship, a regional first.

1992: Etisalat launches ISDN services.

1994: Etisalat Launches GSM services, the first in the region to launch nationwide services.

1995: Launch of commercial internet services by Etisalat, another regional first.

1996: Etisalat is one of the founding investors of satellite services company, Thuraya.

1997: Etisalat launches prepaid GSM services. Thuraya is officially incorporated in April 1997. Company’s capital of US$500 million is fully raised US$1 billion contract signed with Boeing Satellite Systems International (BSSI) for building Thuraya satellite network.

1998: Thuraya and BSSI conduct the preliminary design review of the Thuraya mobile satellite system. Thuraya begins appointing Service Providers, and commences construction of Primary Gateway in UAE. Etisalat is appointed as Thuraya’s first service provider, in the UAE.

1999: Etisalat makes first international investments in Africa in Zantel and Sudatel. Foundation of UAE Lab.

1999: Thuraya successfully raises US$475 million for project finance through a consortium of banks.

2000: Launch of Thuraya Satellite services. First Thuraya satellite, Thuraya-1, launches from the Pacific Ocean. Foundation of the Etisalat Academy; E-vision; Emirates Internet Exchange (EMIX); and the Customer Care Centre.

2001: The first-generation Thuraya handset, the Thuraya Hughes 7100, is introduced. Thuraya ramps up commercial operations, signing numerous SP agreements in countries across Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

2002: Thuraya significantly boosts its commercial reach, signing agreements with 40 new SPs. A launch date of January 2003 is set for the Thuraya-2 satellite, and BSSI is contracted to build a third satellite, Thuraya-3.

2003: The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) of the UAE is established according to the UAE Federal Law by Decree No. 3 of 2003 – Telecom Law. Etisalat launches commercial 3G services and MMS services. Thuraya’s second satellite, Thuraya-2, is launched, further expanding the company’s network coverage area. In the same year, Thuraya’s subscriber base surpasses 100,000 consumers.

2004: Etisalat acquires its second and third mobile licences, in Saudi Arabia (Mobily) and Canar in Sudan. Thuraya expands its coverage area southward within Africa, launches a new first-generation handset, the Hughes 7101, and introduces Thuraya Marine to the market.

2005: Mohammed Omran becomes chairman of Etisalat Group and goes on to transform the company to an international operator with a footprint in 18 countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Etisalat launches HSDPA network. Acquires Atlantique Telecom and Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited. Thuraya launches its first high-speed satellite data solution, Thuraya DSL and Crew Calling solution.

2006: Emirates Integrated Telecommunication Company (EITC) launches the Du brand, under which it will expand its offerings to provide integrated communications solutions, including voice, data and video content. During the same year, Du opens the FALCON landing station and provides a UAE landing station for the pan-regional submarine cable, and purchases capacity on the multi-terabit system. Du launches its graduate trainee scheme for Emirati students, to promote and encourage Emiratisation within the company. Etisalat launches BlackBerry services, being the first in the Middle East, and also launches Weyak portal. Etisalat acquires green field licences in Egypt and Afghanistan. Thuraya officially releases the Thuraya SO-2510, the world’s smallest satellite mobile handheld. Thuraya successfully achieves a high-speed Internet connection using its new Thuraya SO-2510.

2007: Founding of Al Yah Satellite Communications Company PrJSC (Yahsat), a private joint stock company fully owned by Mubadala, an investment arm of the government of Abu Dhabi. The company will design the region’s first multi-purpose satellite system. Etisalat acquires of green field Universal Access License in Nigeria and a stake in Exceldomindo in Indonesia. It also launches its Global Carrier Wholesale business unit. Etisalat is the first operator worldwide to launch calculation and payment of zakat over mobile. Etisalat is the first operator in the Middle East to be awarded PCI (Payment Card Industry) certification by Visa International. Du fixed-line voice available nationwide. Announces the availability of its fixed line services across the UAE, and extends its mobile network coverage area. Du hits 1 million customer landmark in November. Thuraya releases Thuraya SG-2520, the most advanced handset in the mobile satellite services industry, supporting dual-band satellite/GSM connectivity. Thuraya opens a new customer service call centre in the UAE.

2008: Thuraya-3 satellite launches in January, further expanding the coverage of its network across Asia and Australia. Thuraya IP is introduced; the world’s fastest, most portable and compact satellite broadband solution. Thuraya launches new billing system for improved customer service, and ThurayaRecharge, which allows pre-paid customers to top up their accounts by phone or online. Yahsat is signed to provide secure satellite communications services to the UAE Armed Forces in April. The company, the first nationally-owned satellite operator in the UAE will lease capacity to the military for a fifteen year period. Du invests over $700 million in EIG cable system in May.

Du signs a construction and maintenance agreement to build the first direct, high-bandwidth optical-fibre submarine cable system from the United Kingdom to India, the Europe Indian Gateway (EIG), costing more than US$700 million. Etisalat acquires 45% in Indian Mobile Operator Swan Telecom. Etisalat now has operations and investments in 17 countries across Asia and Africa. Yahsat secures commitments from 14 banks for $1.2 billion to finance the Middle East’s first hybrid satellite communications system. Etisalat launches mobile parking and stages the pilot launch of money remittance service. Du announces three million mobile customers in December.

2009: Etisalat launches iPhone services, being the first operator in the GCC to do so. Yahsat announces the launch of new secure satellite communications service for military and government organisations in February. The YahSecure service will provide reliable and secure communications across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, primarily to government, military and enterprise users for important apps.

Thuraya launches Thuraya XT, the only satellite handheld with full walk and talk capabilities. It also aunches a new corporate identity, a service in Korea, and provides the world’s only Netted Comms Solution. Thuraya launches Point of Presence and Meet Me Point. Du invests AED100 million to upgrade network infrastructure. It upgrades its IP-based core network to 40Gbps, making it one of the fastest networks in the Middle East. Du announces roll-out of HSPA+ in November. Du takes its 3G EDGE network to the next level with HSPA+ technology from Huawei, investing US$85 million in the project to increase download speeds to 21Mbps. The operator goes on to launch video-on-demand – the first such service in the country.

2010: Etisalat launches HSPA+ service and becomes the fifth operator in the world to launch 3D TV. Thuraya launches aeronautical voice services, Comms-on-the-Move service for efficient usage of data communications in moving vehicles. Du signs partnership with Gulf Bridge International. The partnership sees Du act as landing party for GBI, the Middle East’s first privately owned submarine cable operator. Yahsat granted a 10-year licence by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA). Du introduces One World Plan. The new plan offers a single flat rate for international calls to over 190 destinations, from just 2 fils/second. Du becomes the first in the UAE and one of the few worldwide operators to offer 42.2Mbps mobile broadband. Broadband penetration crosses 75% of households, according to Etisalat.

2011: Du integrates fixed and mobile IP transport networks. Using Cisco CRS Carrier Routing System to enable fixed mobile convergence on its network. Du became one of the first telecoms regionally to converge fixed and mobile networks. Etisalat’s board of directors promotes Ahmad Abdulkarim Julfar to the newly created role of group CEO. Yahsat hires Hughes Networks Systems to provide it with the networking and operational systems required to launch broadband services. Etisalat launches the region’s first mobile LTE network. Yahsat launches its first satellite, Y1A, from French Guiana in April. The UAE’s TRA said that Etisalat and Du had soft-launched fixed-infrastructure sharing, allowing a select group of residents to choose their fixed-line provider, in July. Du completes phase one of its Optical Transport Network expansion in July. Du celebrates five million customers.

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