Merger mania, 3G and WAP: that was the year that was...

Alex Marklew of CommsMEA takes a look back at the key events in the Middle East communications industry in 2000.

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By  Alex Marklew Published  December 11, 2000

Alex Marklew of CommsMEA takes a look back at the key events in the Middle East communications industry in 2000.

Well the good news is we're still here.

This time last year everyone who's anyone was predicting that when the clocks struck midnight on December 31st, the world's technology would grind to a halt, banks would implode and planes would fall from the sky.

Luckily it never came to that, which is just as well as the end of the world would no doubt have been a bad way to start what turned out to be a fascinating year.

It took quite an effort just to keep up with who was buying who, in a year that saw the birth of the world's biggest telecom company, as well as countless smaller deals. 2000 will also be remembered as the year that the Middle East finally caught privatisation fever.

Although some flotations were more successful than others, the groundwork has now been laid for a number of sell-offs in 2001.

It wasn't all plain sailing, of course.

Lebanon showed everyone how NOT to do the private industry thing, and the less said about Iridium the better, but on the whole the last year has been a good one for the comms industry. Alex Marklew takes a look back at the key events.

JANUARY: Who's Afraid of Y2K?

The world wakes up on January 1st and breathes a sigh of relief after discovering that the millennium bug has not caused civilisation to end overnight.

Some say that this is proof the whole thing was just an over-hyped waste of money, while others believe that the amount spent on preparations is what prevented problems from occurring.

Jordan Telecom starts the year on the brink of a 40% sell-off to France Telecom. If the US $508 million deal is successful, the Jordanian government will hold on to 51% of the shares in JTC, while the remaining 9% will go into a staff savings fund. Valued at $1.2 billion by Arthur Anderson and Merill Lynch, JTC is the kingdom's most profitable national enterprise.

Elsewhere in Jordan, mobile operator Fastlink promises to slash the cost of calls after striking a deal with the government. PTT Minister Jamal Saraireh says that the decrease will follow the reduction of the ‘price basket' by 20-30%, and will lead to the government cutting Fastlink's tax bill.

It is hoped that this will increase local interest in mobiles, making the market larger and more attractive to overseas investment.

Batelco hands a massive contract with Ericsson, with the Swedish company agreeing to provide Bahrain with an new GSM infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Motorola wins a $20 million contract from Moroccan GSM operator Itissalat Al Maghrib to expand the company's network.

"With the increasing demand for not only voice, but data capability over GSM, we are delighted that IAM is continuing its relationship with us to take its network forward into the millennium," said Jeff Gordon, Motorola's corporate vice-president and general manager for the Middle East and Africa.

In a separate move, Motorola pump an extra $20 million into the failing Iridium satellite communication project. The company filed for bankruptcy last summer, but its investors hope that the extra cash will give Iridium the time it needs to find a buyer.

"Our existing investors have stepped forward to provide for our on-going operations, while we continue to have discussions with potential new investors," says CEO John Richardson.

ICO's prospects are also looking up, with the US bankruptcy court granting final approval to the company's $500 million financing from international investors led by Teledesic's Craig McCaw.

While two satellite companies are trying to turn around their ailing fortunes, the Middle East's own Thuraya continues to build its business before launching anything into orbit, signing up Alkan as service provider for Egypt.

"We don't want to make the same mistakes as other operators," said Hassan Azzee Thuraya's marketing manager for the Middle East.

Over in Europe, German company Mannesmann continues to fight against a hostile takeover by British telecom giant Vodafone. CEO Klaus Esser announces plans for a $7 billion floatation of his firm's Internet and e-commerce arms, aiming to make the company less attractive to it's potential buyer.

"It is a matter of extreme regret that Vodafone insists on pursuing this hostile route," said a spokesman. "Having reviewed the Vodafone statement, Mannesmann continues to reject the offer since the case advanced by Vodafone is as unattractive as ever."

FEBRUARY: Setting Records

Ten days into the month, Vodafone AirTouch becomes the fourth biggest company in the world after announcing a $183 billion buy-out of Mannesmann, the largest corporate merger in history.

The new company has 42 million customers worldwide, making it the biggest mobile phone operator on the planet. However, the deal has caused a major regulatory problem, since Mannesmann took control of Orange, Vodafone's arch-rival in the UK mobile market, in the middle of last year.

Back in the Middle East, the region's biggest-ever corporate acquisition sees Orascom taking control of Telecell for $413 million. Telecell currently operates GSM networks in 11 different African countries.

"It's obvious that [Orascom] is looking to dominate the Middle Eastern and African markets," said Maha Abou El Ehein, Orascom's communications manager.

Siemens announces that it will supply Fastlink with prepaid systems for its GSM network. The Swedish company's products will be based on INXpress, its platform for intelligent network services.

"We are implementing a prepaid service, which will have quite an effect on the whole mobile network service," said Florian Kretz, press officer at Fastlink told CommsMEA.

"Because of Jordan's basic telecoms infrastructure, and the number of people without bank accounts, there is a strong demand for such a service. This is the market Fastlink is addressing.

"This will turn out cheaper for the operator, as there are no expenses for sending bills, etc. The IN server is connected to the billing software, which is in turn routed to INXpress billing software."

Launched in 1995, Fastlink already has 100,000 users. The Jordanian operator hopes to launch the prepaid service late in March this year.
Telecom Egypt announces that it is looking at launching a possible third mobile licence, while Turkey issues two new GSM tenders. Meanwhile, Syria starts operating a pilot GSM programme to test demand.

Iridium hopes that new handsets from Motorola will boost its rapidly sliding sales. The phone is 23% smaller that older models, and 17% lighter. Many critics had blamed the chunky, heavyweight handsets (and high prices) for Iridium's early struggles.

Further good news comes with an announcement that Jordan has licensed the system, opening up an important new market for the ailing satellite company.

MARCH: Who's Buying Whom?

Two Turkish GSM operators go head-to-head in a GPRS battle, with Turkcell and Telsim making simultaneous announcements of contracts worth US $2.3 billion for system upgrades.

Turkcell, currently holding a 70% market share, hopes it can gain the advantage by working with long-term partner Ericsson in an $850 million deal. The expansions will allow Turkcell to serve more geographic areas and offer increased capacity in high-density areas. Ericsson will also be introducing its latest innovations to the Turkish market, including an open general packet radio system (GPRS) and GSM on the net.

Meanwhile, Motorola is to provide Telsim with infrastructure, handsets and services for its GSM network. The contract, worth $1.5 billion, will also involve Motorola implementing a full trial overlay GPRS mobile data network.

France Telecom announces it is bidding for one of the new Turkish licenses, announced last month. After successfully acquiring a 40% share in JTC, many see it as proof of France Telecom's increasing interest in the Middle Eastern market. The region has been ignored by many of the other telecom giants, who have targeted America and the Far East instead.

Iridium looks doomed after Craig McCaw pulls the satellite company's final lifeline.

"With the powerful influence of the Internet on global communications, we've made a strategic decision to focus our resources and attention on the satellite-based data services that ICO and Teledesic can provide," said Dennis Weibling, president of McCaw's Eagle River investment firm.

Motorola, Iridium's largest shareholder, is now warning subscribers that service could cease without notice at any time. The UAE-based Thuraya continues to show other satellite operators how to do it, gaining another service provider, this time in Jordan.

$13 million worth of deals are struck at the ME Telecoms show, but the figure seems tiny compared to the $48 million Vodafone forks out to sponsor Manchester United, considered by many to be the world's biggest football club.

The Flag cable continues to pick up subscribers, with STC the latest company in the region to buy capacity, this time on the link between Jeddah and New York.

"We believe the size of capacity purchased underlines the importance of fibre optic cables in today's bandwidth-hungry market, and the confidence of Saudi Telecom in FLAG Telecom to deliver a robust service," said Andres B Bande, CEO of Flag.

Terms of the multi-million dollar agreement are not disclosed.

APRIL: Mobile Money Mania

The amount of money involved in the industry goes through the roof as the British government auctions off five third-generation mobile licences to the highest bidders. When the auction ends on the 27th, total bids have passed the $35.4 billion mark. Vodafone pays the most, shelling out nearly $10 billion for the best of the five licences.

As well as paying for the right to use the airwaves, the companies will also have to invest in a 3G infrastructure, something which could cost as much again.

Saudi-backed consortium Cell C is chosen at the preferred bidder for South Africa's third mobile operating licence.

"Satra (South Africa's telecom regulator) proposes to recommend to the minister of communications the following applicant, Cell C, be awarded the licence," said Eddie Funde of Satra.

Cell C is 60% owned by Saudi contracting company Saudi Oger, and is backed by US telco GTE. It will have to invest $600 million in a new network to compete with the two existing operators.

The decision to go with Cell C has caused controversy after other operators complained that the company doesn't have a viable business plan. According to some commentators, Cell C's existing plan would leave it "technically insolvent."

Nextcom and Khuluma 084, two of the unsuccessful bidders for the licence, threaten legal action to have the decision overturned.

Etisalat spins of its Internet division into a new operating unit called Emirates Internet and Multimedia, aiming to make the company more responsive to customer needs. The company has been heavily criticised by many Internet users for not providing a good enough service.

"The pervasiveness of the Internet in our daily lives is expected to result in the emergence and growth of the e-Economy," said Ali Salim Al Owais, president of Etisalat. "The EIM unit will provide us with the right focus to realise this vision."

Maroua Naim, who revealed that DSL trials are at an advanced stage in the country, will head the new unit.

"An Arabic search engine is planned for April, and access to the Internet from mobile phones will be supported in the near future," she said.

The launch of ICO's first satellite goes disastrously wrong, as the rocket carrying it into orbit crashes and burns minutes after blast-off.

After a successful take-off from the Sea Launch platform in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a computer error caused ground control to lose contact with the rocket.

"We are disappointed with the loss of our first satellite," said ICO CEO Richard Greco. "But launch failures are a well-known risk in this industry and ICO's planning has, from the outset, taken into account the possibility of such an occurrence."

"We have mitigated the impact of a failure by planning to launch 12 satellites even though our intended service only requires ten."

Ericsson beats off a host of international competition by agreeing to work with STC to upgrade the Saudi Arabian GSM network. The $300 million deal will expand the network by allowing for a million new users.

"Ericsson has been chosen because it offered the most attractive technical and commercial solution / proposal," Cesare Avenia, vice president of Ericsson in the Middle East, told CommsMEA. "We are allocating the best and utmost resources to guarantee the success of the project."

MAY: Legal Battles, Consolidation

The Lebanese government comes under heavy criticism after announcing that it wants to break a 10-year contract with the country's two mobile operators.

The government claims that the two companies violated their contracts by exceeding the number of allowed subscribers, cheating on bills and failing to pay the government for use of transmission frequencies. Information minister Anwar al-Khalil has stated that between them LibanCell and Cellis owe the government $600 million.

He said that the two firms had been warned about their conduct before, and told that their contracts would be terminated if things didn't change.

LibanCell reacts angrily to the threats, and rejects the government's claims outright.

"For over two years, LibanCell was subject to erroneous accusations coming from the government and the politicians, and misleading the public opinion concerning so-called 'violations,'" said a spokesman. "We chose, at the time, to remain silent, confident of our rights and of our legal practices.

"Time has come for us to answer loudly, and explain to all, the truth behind the GSM crisis in Lebanon. No, LibanCell has never violated any law whatsoever. No, LibanCell has never falsified the BOT contract financial terms. No, LibanCell has never abused or overcharged its subscribers."

Khalil orders the operators to pay the treasury 30% of their gross income for 1999-2003, as well as 50% of the fees generated above those for the 125,000 lines per company that the state authorised.

Experts predict that the bitter public feuding could damage the global image of the Middle Eastern communications market, and deter potential foreign investors.

Meanwhile, a Hong Kong-backed consortium launches legal action to stop South Africa's third mobile licence from going to Saudi Arabia's Cell C. NextCom, one of the bidders who lost out to Cell C, said it has applied for an "urgent interdict" to stop the issue of the licence.

"We intend to fight this situation. We will do what it takes to see some kind of resolution which is favourable to us," said Bruce Hicks, chief executive of the Distacom and head of the NextCom consortium.

Cell C's largest backer is Saudi Oger, a diversified conglomerate with its main focus in the construction company.

An independent analyst said that the NextCom was the best choice for the licence, with Cell C in third place. The government ignored this report, an awarded the rights to Cell C with NextCom third.

Telecom Egypt is readying itself for partial privatisation and will offer a first tranche of shares as early as June. The government has placed a $1 billion price tag on the IPO, which will see the sale of between 10 and 20% of the company.

At the same time, Turk Telekom prepares for a block sale of 20%, aiming to get the deal underway as soon as possible. According to minister Tunca Toskay, the tender will be completed in June or July, and that money will be with the treasury by December.

Over in Africa, Etisalat increases its stake in Sudan's Sudatel, strengthening the company's presence in the African market.

Vodafone solves its regulatory problem by selling Orange to France Telecom for around $30 billion.

Iridium announces that it will be pulling down its satellites after filing for bankruptcy.

JUNE: Summer Sell-offs

Oman's Sultan Qaboos has issued a decree approving the privatisation of state-run General Telecommunications Organisation (GTO) and turning into a public shareholding company. The Sultan has also appointed the Minister of Transport and Housing Malik bin Suleiman al-Muammari as the company's deputy chairman of the board of directors.

Oman announced last year it was privatising GTO, Oman's sole provider of telecom services. It is expected that the sell-off will be completed later this year, the latest step in Oman's plan to diversify its economy away from oil while encouraging a greater role for the private sector.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has called for the full privatisation of NTT, Japan's dominant telecom operator, owning 90% of the country's local lines. He said he will ask for the full government sale of the company as soon as possible.

The government currently holds 59% of NTT, and has gradually been selling off the company, but a full privatisation would require a change in legislation.

"We have to head in the direction of full privatisation," said Mori. "We say that NTT should make an effort in the global market. But the firm cannot do that if it is handcuffed and shackled."

The company also owns NTT DoCoMo, the world's second largest mobile operator.

Syriatel has charges for mobile phones in half after high prices lead to a tiny demand for services. The PTT chose to cut costs after only 3,900 people subscribed for the service, just 6.5% of the predicted uptake.

The low demand has been attributed to the high price of subscriptions, a limited network that covers only a 40KM radius, and line costs of about $1100.

The one-year GSM pilot project is being run by Siemens and Lebanese company Investcom, with revenue being used to finance a more comprehensive network that will cover the whole country.

Nokia scoops the contract to expand Maroc Telecom's GSM network, increasing capacity across Morocco.

"The Moroccan GSM market is facing a very promising development and Nokia is happy to continue its long relationship with Maroc Telecom," said Christian Gorecki, managing director of Nokia Networks, Morocco. "The expansion of agreement further demonstrates Nokia's position as leading supplier of GSM technology and proves that Nokia delivers high quality products and dependable service, allowing us to meet our customer's requirements."

Motorola tries to find a buyer for the Iridium infrastructure, claiming that the satellites are not being pulled down and are in fact in full working order.

Meanwhile, Tunisia becomes the latest country to sign up for Thuraya, even though the company is still three months from the scheduled launch of its first satellite.

JULY: That's a WAP!

Lucent Technologies picks up a $51 million contract with the Egyptian Company for Networks (EgyNet) to expand its national ATM backbone data services network.

The network will provide Internet access and video broadcast capability for EgyNet business customers. This phase of the expansion is scheduled to be complete this year and, in addition, the companies signed a memo of understanding for Lucent to further expand EgyNet's network over four years.

WAP services are now available to all mobile line subscribers in Egypt after Click GSM announced that it is now ready to offer services to the public. Back in May Egypt's other mobile operator, MobiNil, introduced WAP, followed soon after by the region's first mobile banking service.

MobiNil is working with ISP and web developer Link Egypt to create local content, while Siemens and Phone.com are installing WAP servers for Click.

Neither operator offers any content in Arabic, but both companies say that will change soon.

A raft of contracts have been handed out in Morocco, covering all aspects of the country's telecom industry. Norwegian telco Telenor has been granted one of three licences enabling it to establish a VSAT satellite network. US equipment supplier Motorola has won a $46 million GSM network expansion contract with Maroc Telecom, who recently awarded a multi-million dollar contract to Nokia to provide new base stations.

Following Britain's lead, the Dutch government opts for an auction to distribute 3G licences. However, a lack of interest from operators leads to the final bids barely reaching the $2.5 billion mark.

Vodafone successfully launches a mobile network in Kenya, and Orascom does well on its first day of trading as a public company.

Juan Villalonga, head of Spanish PTT Telefonica, is struggling to save his career after a merger with KPN collapses amid rumours of insider trading.

AUGUST: Ups and Downs

Qatar Telecom expects to double its present subscriber capacity after awarding Alcatel a contract to expand its GSM network.

The contract, which is worth US $21.6 million, also provides for the Middle East's first complete GPRS solution for mobile Internet access, which was scheduled for deployment in the capital, Doha and other areas from June 2000.

CNN Interactive and Click GSM of Egypt announce an alliance to offer CNN Mobile for the first time in the Middle East. The service will be available to Click's WAP subscribers, offering 24-hour global and pan-regional news and information service for GSM mobile phones.

"Click GSM is delighted to be able to provide its customers with a news service as popular as CNN," said Mohamed Ali El-Hamamsy, CEO and General Manager of Click GSM.

CNN Mobile launched in February 1999 with nine charter operators in seven European and Asian countries.

Click GSM service is provided by Misrfone, a private Egyptian company backed by Vodafone AirTouch.

"We are delighted that Click GSM has chosen to offer its customers CNN Mobile on their new WAP service," said Alison Mordue, director of business development, new media for Turner Broadcasting System Europe Limited.

Etisalat moves a step closer to its ambition of becoming a centre for Internet traffic by buying STM-1 level capacity on the Flag Telecom cable between the United Arab Emirates and Japan.

The 17th is a particularly busy day. In the morning BT takes control of German mobile phone operator Viag Interkom in a $6.04 billion deal, raising its stake in the company to 90%. The move is seen by many as an attempt to keep in touch with Vodafone, who took over Mannesmann earlier this year.

In the afternoon Germany's 3G licence auction closes, with a record $46.1 billion raised for 12 frequency blocks. The markets react badly to the news, with millions wiped off the value of telecoms shares as investors begin to worry that the industry is over-valued and that companies are spending far too much on the right to operate 3G services without even having the correct infrastructure in place.

Lee Ching-Chiang, vice president of Chunghwa Telecom, Taiwan's soon-to-be-privatised state telephone firm, is found dead at his company's HQ on the 4th. He had been suffering from depression in the run-up to the sell-off, and it is believed he committed suicide.

SEPTEMBER: Cairo Waves the Flag

Flag Telecom are continuing to pick up subscribers in the Middle East and Africa, with Telecom Egypt the latest service provider to buy additional capacity on the international cable system.

The multi-million dollar deal for a 155 Mbit/s link between Alexandria and New York was struck after a rise in Egyptian Internet usage.

Last month ETISALAT purchased 155 Mbit/s capacity on the Flag cable between the UAE and Japan, and Jordan Telecommunications recently bought 45 Mbit/s broadband access on the Aqaba to New York link. Both companies said that a rise in demand for Internet services was the reason for the deals.

"We are fast-expanding our Internet customer base of both domestic and business users in Egypt and the IT industry is also developing rapidly," said His Excellency Dr Ahmad Nazif, Egypt's minister of telecommunications and IT.

"Worldwide Internet usage is exploding as e-business becomes increasingly accepted and we are expecting this trend to continue in Egypt and throughout the Middle East.

"As a major customer and landing partner of Flag Telecom we enjoy a close partnership with the company and they have once again provided capacity quickly and cost-effectively," he added.

Low-cost Internet phone calls should be coming to the Middle East within a year. US Internet phone provider Go2Call, who already offers free calls to, from and within the USA, Canada, the UK, Ireland and Germany, is aiming to launch in the Middle East by the end of 2001.

Speaking to Comms MEA, Go2Call founder John Nix said: "Because we were the first PC-to-phone service provider to offer free, web-based calling to Europe, we plan to stick fairly closely to a European expansion plan. But as costs for Middle East calling fall, we plan to offer paid PC-to-phone service to countries there sometime next year."

Some of Go2Calls heaviest users are already in the Gulf region, where a combination of business callers and ex-pats take advantage of the free service to keep in touch with Europe and the USA.

The German government pledges to eliminate its direct interest in Deutsche Telekom. The decision, which will see DT become a totally private venture, was made after the company's current 43.2% share drew criticism from U.S. lawmakers concerned about the company's proposed purchase of VoiceStream Wireless Corp.

The German government's direct stake in DT will fall to 33% after DT swallows VoiceStream, a company based in Bellevue, Washington, that offers digital wireless communications.

Intel publishes a profits warning ahead of its annual report, knocking billions off the jittery telecom market once again.

Mobile phone networks across India are hit as hundreds of thousands of state telecom workers go on strike, demanding written commitments on their future, job security and pension benefits. The trouble began after the government announced plans to turn the corporation into a company under state ownership from October 1st.

"Complaints are pouring in in large numbers from mobile subscribers due to their inability to make calls," said a spokesman for the Cellular Operators Association of India.

Union leaders are delighted with the situation.

"Throughout the country the strike is continuing well," said Radhey Shyam from the NFTE.

OCTOBER: Comms goes into Orbit

Thuraya-1, the first satellite of the UAE-based Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications Company is successfully launched after technical problems caused the launch to be delayed twice.

Lifting off from the Sea Launch platform in the middle of the Pacific Ocean at 9:52 am UAE time, the five tonne satellite is now in a geo-synchronous orbit over Africa. It can provide telephone coverage for 99 countries across the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

"Today's launch success has complemented many successful commercial and technical milestones already accomplished by Thuraya, which together put our leading system in perspective for providing a vital, premier service on schedule," said Mohammad Omran, chairman of Thuraya.

All systems onboard the Russian and Ukrainian three-stage rocket performed normally, with the final, upper stage separating from the satellite 1,388 miles above South America.

The Nigerian Government announces that it will use an auction to allocate its second- generation mobile telecommunications licences. To assist them they have enlisted the services of Radio Spectrum International (RSI).

The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), an independent regulator of the Nigerian telecommunications industry, will auction the four licences for operators of second-generation digital mobile communications networks.

"The NCC wishes to encourage interest from the world-wide telecommunications community and welcomes responses to consultation from all interested parties," said Ernest C.A Ndukwe, executive vice chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission.

Mobile phone users in Saudi Arabia can now make calls from "virtually every corner" of the country, according to Globalstar, the mobile telephone service.

Saudi Globalstar has been offering the service on a limited basis to select customer and corporations since June of this year. Now, with the successful completion of all system testing, Saudi Globalstar has formally launched a full commercial service, making it available across Saudi Arabia through authorised dealers and retailers.

"Reliable, affordable satellite phone service is closing the telecommunications gap across the globe," said Tony Navarra, president of Globalstar.

National Bank of Dubai will launch a fully automated branch by the end of this year. The announcement was made as NBD unveiled the UAE's first Customer Interactive Terminal (CIT), a touch-screen stand-alone terminal, which allows customers to access a wide range of NBD services.

Egypt's government has announced that it will proceed with an IPO of shares in Telecom Egypt. A 25 percent stake in the company will be sold by the end of this month, according to minister of information Safwat al-Sherif.

MobileCom's customer base passed the 20,000 mark within just one week of the start of operations.

Jordan's new GSM communications partner has already gained over ten percent of the country's market, in spite of only going into service in the middle of last month.

"MobileCom has fulfiled its promise to Jordan by introducing new value to the market with price and service offerings that have broken down the barriers to entry and permit more Jordanians to benefit from mobile communications capabilities," said Jean-Luc Vuillemin, CEO of MobileCom.

"With over 20,000 customers in the first week of operation, MobileCom has achieved a 10 percent market share of the total GSM market. The support of Jordanians is the driving force behind this."

NOVEMBER: Wireless Application: Pathetic?

Two Middle East mobile phone network operators are to launch WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) services this year despite poor customer response to the technology in Europe.

Consumer apathy in many parts of Northern Europe has failed to deter Batelco in Bahrain and Etisalat in the UAE who have both proposed to test and introduce mobile information services. WAP makes specially managed Internet information available to mobile phone users.

At the beginning of October Batelco chairman Sheikh Ali bin Khalifa Al Khalifa announced, "The company is all set for WAP services to enable mobile customers to access content, applications and information from the Internet from their WAP-enabled mobile handsets."

At the same time, Etisalat began a promotional campaign, in Arabic, detailing the new information services that it will provide to its mobile customers.

Despite the decisions by these operators to venture into the WAP market, it still remains to be seen whether the services will be a success after Europe's failure to take notice. The low subscriber take up in the UK, Germany and other Northern European countries has led to some experts claiming that the initial roll out of the technology has been less than successful.

France Telecom is looking to increase its stake in Mobinil by buying out Motorola's share of the Egyptian mobile operator.

If the buy-out is successful, France Telecom will become Mobinil's biggest single shareholder, with 41.5% of the company under its wing. Motorola currently owns 18 %, with France Telecom controlling 23.5%. Orascom Telecom, which owns 18 mobile licences in Africa and the Middle East, is the largest shareholder at present, with 26.1%. The remaining 30% are a free float.

Propel Inc, a Motorola subsidiary which operates wireless businesses across the Middle East, recently announced that it plans to offer 23.5 million shares in an initial public stock offering as part of Motorola's plans to divest its mobile operations.

HSBC telecomms analyst Rony Argi told the Reuters news agency that there have been rumours that Motorola is willing to divest its mobile operations individually, not only in Egypt, but also in other countries.

The world's first Internet fridge is shown off to the Middle East at GITEX Dubai. Combining the features of a PC with the body of a chiller cabinet, LG Electronics' Internet Digital DIOS refrigerator can be used to surf the web, make videophone calls and, of course, keep things cold.

"This is a quantum leap towards the tighter integration of white and information consumer electronics products to produce a new type of home appliance for the digital age," said Young H. Kim, LGE's president for the Middle East and Africa. The fridge took 55 people three years to develop.

2001: What do you think?

So, that was the year 2000. Massive take-overs, high-level arguments, great leaps forward in technology. And a fridge that lets you surf the web.

At the time of writing it's only late November, and even at CommsMEA we don't know what the future (not even December) holds in store for the world of communications. But we can still have a guess.

With all the groundwork in place, it looks like 2001 will be the year when privatisation really takes off in the region. If the pioneers are successful, maybe even more hesitant nations (such as the UAE) will jump on the bandwagon.

There's also the small matter of all the new technology that will emerge over the next 12 months. Will WAP prove the critics wrong and become a vital part of every day life for people in the Middle East? Will 3G technology spread around the world? What about UMTS?

Anyone at Gitex this year will have seen the stunning array of gadgets on display: how many of these will actually make it into our homes?

We've got our own ideas, but we'd also like to know what you think.

How was the year 2000 for you? What were your highlights? And what do you think 2001 has in store?

If you have any thoughts you'd like to share with us, email them to alex.marklew@itp.net.

Thanks for your support over the last 12 months, and all the best for 2001 from Alex, Will, Jon, Terry, Paul and everyone at CommsMEA.

See you in January 2001!

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