Etisalat to launch GPRS roaming exchange next year

Etisalat Data Clearing House (EDCH) is hoping to boost its own revenues and kickstart the process of interconnecting the region's mobile packet data networks with the launch of a GPRS roaming exchange (GRX) in the UAE.

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By  Richard Agnew Published  November 30, 2003

Etisalat Data Clearing House (EDCH) is hoping to boost its own revenues and kickstart the process of interconnecting the region's mobile packet data networks with the launch of a GPRS roaming exchange (GRX) in the UAE.

The GRX, a dedicated system linking mobile operators' infrastructure to allow GPRS roaming, is expected to comprise two hubs in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Once it is operational in early 2004, it will be managed by EDCH, Etisalat's international clearing house subsidiary.

"We're going to build a GRX as an extension for ECDH," says Ahmed Almehyas, manager, EDCH.

"It will be launched sometime in the first quarter of next year," he adds.

Etisalat allowed GPRS roaming for some visitors to the UAE from Europe during the IMF and World Bank meetings in Dubai in September 2003, providing them with high-speed access to e-mail and other IP-based services while the conference was on.

The operator is also believed to be testing peering with operators in Jordan and Egypt, as well as others outside the region in the UK and Switzerland.

However, the widespread introduction of GPRS roaming in the Middle East is perceived to have been at least partly held back by the potential data connectivity costs of routing traffic to and from GRXs elsewhere in the world, such as the original exchange set up in Amsterdam in 2001.

"There are a number of GPRS customers in the Middle East [but] the number of people that are roaming is [far] less," says Almehyas.

"If an operator in the Middle East wants to have GPRS roaming, the nearest GRX is in Europe, which is very expensive. Instead, [with our GRX, it] can have a link to Etisalat," he adds.

Alternative ways of allowing GPRS roaming between mobile networks include direct peering via IP tunneling.

Its increased availability will also require internal billing system upgrades, as well as the completion of commercial negotiations of the terms and conditions of bilateral agreements.

However, the GRX will provide a technical solution for the region's operators seeking to implement roaming quickly and targeting new income streams.

"Voice roaming is already a major revenue source for some of the markets in the region," says Mohsen Malaki, senior analyst, IDC CEMA's telecoms group.

"GPRS roaming is essential for operators to generate traffic and revenues early on. Roaming is [also] very important for travelling corporate users, and would be key to increasing [uptake] of mobile data among early adopters," he adds.

The exchange is also expected to be used to allow roaming for UMTS subcribers once 3G is launched by operators in the region.

Additionally, EDCH will offer connection to the GRX as a new service for its existing customers in the Middle East and other areas of the world.

This summer, EDCH signed a deal to supply the soon-to-be-launched mobile operator, MTC-Vodafone Bahrain, with clearing services and signaling, a system which automatically verifies whether customers traveling abroad are eligible for roaming once they arrive in a new country.

In November, the provider also expanded its customer base to 36 with the announcement of deals with five GSM operators for roaming-related services.

The agreements, with China Mobile, Celtel Uganda and Sierra Leone, SNPT Comoros and Vodafone Albania, involve the provision of data clearing, financial clearing and conversion of files to transfer accounting protocol version three (TAP3).

Additionally, an option has been included in the new contracts to offer inter-operator tariff (IOT) checking, a facility which assesses files received from clients' roaming partners to make sure that charges are in accordance with existing agreements.

EDCH now claims to hold a global market share of 6% and estimates that it handles more than 1.5 million call records per day, up from 350,000 two years ago.

According to Almehyas, the total value of money changing hands through its network is expected to hit Dhs1.4 billion (US$380 million) this year, up from Dhs600 million (US$160 million) in 2002.

In 2004, meanwhile, the provider is targeting further geographical expansion in a bid to raise its customer tally to around 50.

"We are aiming to pick up more customers in Europe and East Asia, [as well as] South America," says Almehyas.

"Last year we couldn't move there because of SARS and Iraq," he adds.

Additionally, EDCH says it is in talks about setting up a clearing system for the three upcoming mobile operators in Iraq, to help them get set up.

"We are a candidate. The operators want to launch services quickly in Iraq," adds Almehyas.

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