The ringmaster

Will mobile TV in the Gulf threaten cultural and religious norms as it moves towards prime time?

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By  Amy Glass Published  September 13, 2008

Al Ghanim is quick to defend accusations of a lack of impartiality towards the two telecom operators.

"We have been challenged, questioned by people who say to us, you are creating something locally, you will protect the local telecom companies but this is absolutely not the case. We are an independent regulator, and we set the rules for the sector and both of them abide by them."

"They are competing aggressively; Etisalat has reshuffled its business, and become more organised, more efficient. Profitability has increased since competition started. Du has grabbed a very good market share in the mobile telephone sector but is not yet in the fixed services. Innovation has been stimulated."

There are millions and millions of websites being created on a daily basis, of course we cannot catch up and we are not policing these sites.

Du had finally entered the fixed line market in 2007, following a drawn out 13-month negotiation with Etisalat, overseen by the TRA. "This was important because we wanted to have competition also in the fixed services."

"It is too difficult for a new operator to lay down cables so we had to allow du, or any future operators to have access to Etisalat's underground infrastructure on cost plus basis."

In the future, international operators are expected to take a position within the UAE market, Al Ghanim says.

"Yes, why not. Definitely they will be (here) in the future, we just need to decide when the time will be...once we liberalise the market - we have the best regulatory system to allow this to happen."

The expansion plans of the TRA were further revealed last month when the regulator ordered the unblocking of more than 1000 websites that have been blocked by the two operators, under the TRA's new Internet Access Management policy.

At the time, Al Ghanim issued a statement ordering the unblocking, saying: "We have always considered the interests and benefits of consumers throughout the formulation of this policy...because we believe in the role of the internet as a primary mean of acquiring knowledge. We don't want the blocking system to have a negative impact on their work and activity".

The policy has seen a complete overhaul of the way the TRA operates its content regulation, he says.

"Before Etisalat and du were filtering harmful material - drugs, viruses, nudity, sexual materials- themselves. We evaluated what they were blocking and have unblocked more than 1000 sites. We have categorised them, now there is a clear policy and procedure, there is a process for unblocking and it has been speeded up."

Al Ghanim is dismissive of the suggestion that the TRA could have a difficult job catering for the nation's content regulation requirements in view of the UAE's religious and cultural diversity.

"When you design content you have to cater for ages, backgrounds, this is a country which is accommodating all people, all nationalities; this is unique about the UAE. Nothing should encourage hatred, respect human dignity, human privacy. These are the sort of things that affect everybody regardless of religion or nationality.

"There are millions and millions of websites being created on a daily basis, of course we cannot catch up and we are not policing these. We are protecting the end-user from harmful content, and if companies want to be taken off the proxy they can, of course they have to justify why."

The players

Etisalat

Established in 1976 to consolidate the independent telecom networks of the UAE's seven emirates, Etisalat was the region's first operator to introduce mobile phone service in 1982, and GSM in 1994.

The company is 60 percent owned by the UAE government's Ministry of Finance and 40 percent of its shares are in free float. The company remained the sole provider of telecoms services in the UAE until competitor du was created in 2005 in accordance with the regional liberalization of the telecoms sector recommended by the World Trade Organisation.

During the first quarter of 2008, net profit reached $576m. Etisalat's consolidated revenues were recorded at $1.6bn, an increase of 26 percent over 2007 figures. Etisalat reported 6.63 million mobile subscribers, an increase of 4 percent from December 2007. Active telephone lines in service and internet subscribers at March end 2008 were 1.33 million and 940,000, respectively.

du

In February 2006, du received its integrated provider licence at a cost of $33.9m, ending Etisalat's near 30-year monopoly on the provision of telecom services in the UAE. The UAE federal government owns 40 percent, Mubadala Development owns 20 percent, Emirates Communication and Technology Co have a 20 percent stake with the remaining 20 percent in free float.

In April 2006, 20 percent of du's shares were listed on the Dubai Financial Market in an IPO oversubscribed by 166 times. The company launched domestic mobile services in February 2007, and by the end of 2007 claimed 1.5 million mobile customers and 46,000 fixed-line subscribers, representing an estimated market share of 19 percent.


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