IT Weekly Middle East Newsletter, 9 October 2005

Another Gitex has now come and gone, the region’s biggest IT event is over for another year (14 months in fact, as it is being moved to post- Ramadan next year) and the dust has well and truly settled.

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By  Peter Branton Published  October 9, 2005

When no news may not prove to be good news|~||~||~|Another Gitex has now come and gone, the region’s biggest IT event is over for another year (14 months in fact, as it is being moved to post- Ramadan next year) and the dust has well and truly settled. Every year after Gitex we hacks look at what were the biggest stories and the key themes to the event. While the themes this year were all about the usual suspects — mobility, the digital home, wireless, et al — perhaps the biggest story was one that didn’t even get announced at the show. Indeed, that non-announcement was so big it over-shadowed all the many stories that did get announced. We are referring here to the non-announcement of the second operator in the UAE, the non-announcement of which had the press rooms at Gitex positively buzzing, with PRs abandoning punting their own clients to tired journos to speculate with those same tired journos as to just why that non-announcement was a non at all. For those of you not familiar with the story, the UAE has this year announced that it is finally going to open up competition in the telecomms sector and allow the creation of a second operator to challenge the incumbent, Etisalat. Now Etisalat has its fans and detractors in equal measure; it has generally done a good job and has certainly built a strong presence in the region through its expansion initiatives. However, most people would agree that competition is, in general, something of a Good Thing: it may need to be monitored and consumers protected but usually you would expect competition to help to lead to better service and better prices for customers. Etisalat is seen by many of its subscribers as expensive: this may be unfair when it is compared to services in Europe, but certainly many customers see it as fairly pricey. Service is also an issue with many of Etisalat’s subscribers, again rightly or wrongly Etisalat has a bad reputation with many for the standard of service it provides. It certainly doesn’t always help itself in the PR department. Witness its statement following Dubai’s recent blackout, when Etisalat claimed that its mobile network had not been affected, despite the fact that hardly anybody in the city had been able to make a mobile phone call. Hardly textbook PR stuff. It is no secret that the UAE sees entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as high on its agenda, nor that said entry will require liberalisation of the telecomm sector. Therefore, even Etisalat has accepted that competition is necessary: it claimed to welcome the emergence of competion last month, in a statement issued just prior to Gitex itself. That was confidently expected to set the stage for the announcement of the second operator, the identity of which has been the subject of massive speculation in recent months. Gossip had veered from a big overseas name (the future was definitely bright, the gossips said) to a second government-owned operator. In the end, nothing much was announced: the UAE’s Telecommunication’s Regulatory Authority (TRA) has said that the second operator will definitely be a government body, which will work with Etisalat in a duopoly, but even that (diluted) announcement didn’t formally happen at Gitex. When it does happen, don’t expect cheaper prices — the TRA has said it doesn’t want to create a price war. Which perhaps raises the question of why bother if we are not going to see proper competition? For those of you who follow Etisalat’s fortunes, they’re certainly good: it expects to make a profit this year of over US$1 billion. What price competition indeed? ||**||

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