Shining a light on Middle East telecoms

Evidence from this year's Gitex and Gulfcomms points to a successful event, given the global economic climate.

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By  Roger Field Published  October 26, 2008

While pessimists set the rumour mill churning as to whether this year's Gitex Technology Week and Gulfcomms would mark a decline from previous editions, evidence from the event points to a successful event, particularly given the current global economic climate.

And even if visitor numbers at Gulfcomms failed to eclipse last year's edition, there were plenty of upbeat announcements from regional and international ICT players that painted an optimistic assessment of the Middle East's telecom sector.

If a global economic slowdown does have any effect on the region, it seems likely that the sheer scale of many projects in the Middle East and North Africa, from real estate developments in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, to the roll out of new telecom networks in Africa, should see the sector through.

Among the many plans revealed at Gulfcomms, a number stood out for the level of investment involved, while others demonstrated the progress the region is making towards a more liberalised telecom sector.

Many of the developments announced at the event also served as a reminder of why the region's telecoms infrasructure is developing so rapidly - demand. A fast rising population throughout the region, as well as rising a hunger for better mobile and data services, provides a strong foundation for ongoing growth.

Many of the projects announced will help provide improved services. For example, it was revealed that Gulf countries are set to be connected via an advanced submarine cable network, provided by Gulf Bridge International (GBI), a privately-owned submarine cable operator backed by a number of enterprises such as Knowledge Ventures and Al Madar Telecom.

The organisation, which also receives support from British Telecom (BT), will work on constructing a submarine cable infrastructure around the Gulf region, to be operational in 2011. Rashid Alnaimi, chairman at Knowledge Ventures, said the new service will "enhance the level of competition and quality on the submarine traffic market."

Meanwhile, satellite operators Inmarsat and Yahsat also unveiled significant investments. Inmarsat is planning to increase the guaranteed IP data speed available on its Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) service, in a move that could offer near-broadcast quality video by mid-2009.

The project, which is currently in development, will deliver a minimum guaranteed streaming rate of 384kbps, making significant improvements to video quality. The premium streaming service will be available on all existing BGAN terminals that are capable of accessing current streaming rates of 256kbps, and will be accessible without the need for additional external hardware.

UAE-based Yahsat, meanwhile, is planning to launch a satellite broadband internet service aimed at businesses and individuals in remote areas in the Middle East, Africa, and South West Asia.

The service will be available for both home users and enterprises through Yahsat 1B, Yahsat's second satellite, which is to be launched in mid-2011. The service is the latest announcement from Yahsat, which is investing a total of US $1.8 billion in the launch of its two satellites and the rollout of its services.

Even handset makers, far more open to being hammered by the credit crunch, are ramping up operations in the Middle East. The creators of the popular Blackberry smart phone are expanding "aggressively" across the Gulf in a bid to meet high demand, a Research In Motion (RIM) executive said on Tuesday.

Khaled Kefel, director of sales for Turkey, Middle East and Africa, said on the sidelines of the Gitex technology exhibition that the growth potential of the region was enormous.

Kefel said RIM is boosting the presence of Blackberry in Kuwait, Oman, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar.

The region might not be completely immune to the grim global economic outlook, but it is obvious where most industry insiders would prefer to be.

Roger Field is the editor of Communications Middle East & Africa.

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