Expanding horizons

Du senior director Mohamed Al-Shahi on the telecom operator’s ambition to put Dubai on the map.

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By  John Parnell Published  October 30, 2008

Best known as a telecoms services provider, UAE operator du is fast developing a reputation as an infrastructure and broadcast transmission support specialist via its du Broadcast Services division. John Parnell speaks to senior director Mohamed Al-Shahi, about the organisation's ambition to put Dubai on the map as the region's top broadcast production and transmission centre.

Launched at CABSAT 2007, du Broadcast Services owns and operates the Samacom teleport facility in Dubai. The company's clients including pan-Arab broadcaster MBC, pay TV operator Showtime and many more of their Dubai Media City (DMC) colleagues, have long been broadcasting via the Samacom teleport.

As the largest teleport in the region, now owned and operated by du Broadcast Services, Samacom is now approaching capacity partly due to the unrelenting launches of FTA channels. This rate of expansion has exceeded the expectations of many in the industry, including Mohamed Saeed Al-Shahi, senior director of du Broadcast Services.

When I became involved with Samacom in 2002, it was not expected that we would need extra capacity over the next 5-10 years. We did not expect to see the phenomenal growth that has occurred. – Al Shahi.

"When I became involved with Samacom in 2002, it was not expected that we would need extra capacity over the next 5-10 years. We did not expect to see the phenomenal growth that has occurred," admits Al-Shahi. "We are obviously very happy to receive the extra business, but we are running out of capacity at the existing teleport."

This does not mean that the next FTA operation to make its pitch will be turned away. The teleport will continue to meet the current needs of the industry, and its projected growth, until 2010. From that point onward, the industry will be relying on the construction of a significant additional installation.

"We are planning a new teleport in Dubai that will be bigger than the existing facility at the Samacom site and will of course be capable of handling a larger capacity. Basically it will more than double our current capability.

"The extra capacity that will be needed to support HD was a major influence in the decision to open the new teleport. Of course it also serves as an opportunity for us to expand our business. We are currently identifying the best site and hope to have the facility in place and operational by 2010," adds Al-Shahi.

Any delay to the construction of this new teleport could prove problematic for the industry with no significant crossover time between Samacom reaching its capacity limits and the estimated start-up time of the new facility.

Al-Shahi says there are many other factors to consider which are very much out of the hands of du and their fellow teleport operators in the region, in Egypt and Jordan.

"The new teleport will be able to handle all the existing channels plus the same volume again. The trouble is finding enough space on the satellites. Nilesat is almost full, Arabsat's BADR-4 is full, so we have to wait for the space to become available on the satellites," claims Al-Shahi.

It is this space shortage, rather than that of the teleports, which remains the more likely to stunt growth in the regional broadcast industry. But growth should not be measured merely by the number of FTA channels operating.

Consumers are likely to want some of this newly available bandwidth assigned for the provision of premium HD content, rather than the continuing discharge of small budget, low relevance and barely watched FTA channels that continues unabated.

The big broadcasters, those with control of the twenty most watched channels, would agree with these sentiments. A consolidation of channels, and perhaps more accurately of bandwidth use, would also represent a consolidation of ad spend. The pay TV operators could also see HD as a potential subscription driver.

The temporary shortage of space with the main satellite operators could even accelerate this consolidation as the cost of bandwidth is driven up as the major players buy up capacity to assign to HD services. This is precisely what du Broadcast Solutions architect Michael Rofe predicted at CABSAT 2008.

In the black

As well as du's Broadcast Services department, the UAE telecom operator is better known for its voice and data services for consumers and businesses. The company has also played an active role in developing IPTV and mobile TV offerings in the UAE.

The company recently released its second quarter results. Losses were down to just under US$12 million, just one sixth of the figure from the same period last year. Revenues had tripled from the equivalent level in 2007.

Du is now set to reach profitability almost one full year ahead of the original target of 4Q 2009, as set by CEO Osman Sultan.

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