By Matthew Reed
The Middle East is a diverse region, and that diversity is reflected in the wide range of broadband development found within its bounds. Qatar and the UAE were respectively the third- and fourth-ranked countries globally for broadband connectivity at the end of 2015, according to Ovum’s Broadband Development Index (BDI), which measures the adoption of broadband services around the world. The high rankings achieved by Qatar and the UAE are due to the wide deployments of fixed and mobile broadband networks in these Gulf nations, including high-speed FTTx and LTE services which are awarded high scores in the BDI.
But there are also some sizable countries in the Middle East where broadband development is much less advanced, and as a result the Middle East as a whole ranked a lowly sixth out of eight regions in the BDI at end-2015. Iraq, where fixed telecoms infrastructure has been crippled by decades of conflict and underinvestment – and which only saw the launch of 3G mobile services in December 2015 – languishes in 183rd place out of the 191 countries covered by the BDI.
A separate study carried out by Ovum in May which covered ten countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region found that even in some of the region’s more developed markets, broadband access speeds are typically low compared to in the most developed global broadband markets.
So why does this matter? Perhaps the most important reason is the link between digital development – of which broadband access is a major driver – and economic development. The World Bank’s Digital Dividends report, published in early 2016, concedes that the impact of digital technologies globally has fallen short of expectations and is unevenly distributed, but it also says that digital technologies have boosted growth, expanded job opportunities, and improved service delivery. Much of the Middle East is deeply in need of this kind of progress.
Huawei’s Global Connectivity Index report, published in June, categorises the more advanced Middle East markets – the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia – as “adopter” nations that have the potential to make good progress towards having a digital economy, achieving significant economic growth as a result. But many other MENA countries fall into the “starter” category in Huawei’s rankings, and have yet to make significant progress towards a digital economy.
There is recognition within the region of what is at stake. For instance, earlier this year Saudi Arabia released Vision 2030, a landmark plan intended to modernise the Saudi economy and reduce its dependence on oil production. The plan sets out new targets for improving broadband access and developing the country’s IT sector.
Even in the most advanced markets in the region, there are constraints that could be removed. The well-known Emirati commentator on Arab affairs Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi argued in a polemic published online that the UAE’s restrictions on VoIP are holding back the start-up sector in the country.
More broadly, steps should be taken to improve competition and encourage new investment in the regional telecoms market, particularly in the fixed sector where liberalisation has tended to lag behind that in the mobile market. Governments and regulators should act to ensure that the necessary spectrum is made available for mobile broadband services. Digital technology should be used to improve the efficiency of both public and private sector services. And educational authorities should prepare their students to create and work in a knowledge economy.