Arab countries are in “take-off mode” in terms of internet connectivity and digital innovation, according to the regional head of Google. However, ongoing tensions between telecoms providers and so-called over-the-top (OTT) players such as Whatsapp and Skype must be resolved to spur growth, Matt Brittin said.
Brittin, who is Google’s president of Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) business and operations, told Arabian Business that digital engagement levels in the region are rising to become among the highest in the world.
Mobile penetration rates are already deeper than in many other countries, while YouTube watch rates per capita are higher in Saudi Arabia “than in almost any other country on the planet”, Brittin said.
“Arab speaking countries are in take-off mode at the moment in terms of internet connectivity,” he told journalists at Google’s London headquarters last month.
“Partly that’s about a thirst for content, and what we’re seeing are content creators locally creating great content and people really engaging with that content.
“It’s also about countries [in the region] seeing the benefit of people being connected to whatever information and whatever devices and being able to express and share content and understand answers. The value of that is potentially transformative.”
However, Brittin added that telecoms providers must work better with OTT and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) players and other communications apps to make internet access more affordable.
The cost of purchasing data is higher in the Middle East than in other regions, such as Europe, and telecoms firms sometimes block such services, which they claim are “piggybacking” off state-funded telecoms infrastructure.
“We try to partner, or work, with telcos to look at whether there are ways we can together make internet access more affordable,” said Brittin.
“There is a tension between the telcos and OTT players – people who are providing services. But we would say [to the telcos] that the fact consumers want YouTube or Google Search and so on enables you to put together data packages that they will willingly pay for.
“We would say we’re providing a stimulus to demand. Because actually, while telcos would say ‘our services cost bandwidth and you [OTT players] should pay us for investing in the bandwidth that’s driving your services’, I would say, no, hang on a minute, you should charge to the consumers because they are the ones that want it.
“So there’s a healthy tension there.”
Brittin said concepts like ‘net neutrality’ (the idea that internet service providers should enable access to all content regardless of the source) were crucial, and he dismissed telecoms providers’ ‘two-speed Internet’ business models, where customers and apps are charged higher fees for faster data provision.
He said: “One of the huge benefits of the internet is the fact that you can access any website and any content from anybody. If you have a two-speed internet where the richer companies [and individuals] can pay for faster access that makes harder for the next Google or Facebook or Twitter to emerge from one of the Arab speaking countries.
“So I think it’s really important for the telcos to [perpetuate] those values around the internet being open. These are complex issues for governments and regulators to overcome.”