Long Term Revolution

While the past decade has seen a revolution in telecoms, the next 10 years is likely to hold even more surprises

Tags: 3GFTTHInternet penetrationLTE
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By  Roger Field Published  January 7, 2010

The start of 2010 provides an ideal time to look back over the past decade and appreciate the sea change that the telecoms sector has undergone in that time.

Back in 2000, when 3G was still about three years away as a commercial reality, with Japan's NTT DoCoMo launching the first pre-commercial 3G trials in May 2001, the mobile and internet industry bore little resemblance to the sector we know today.

Closer to home, in the UAE, Etisalat - then the only operator in the country of course - had 1.4 million mobile subscribers, according to the ITU. But while impressive for the time, this figure is dwarfed by the combined 7.5 million subscriptions now claimed by Etisalat and Du.

Internet use also provides an interesting insight into how far the region has developed. Back in 2000, the Middle East had about 3.2 million internet users, compared to over 57 million in 2009, according to Internet World Stats.

Meanwhile, figures for Africa show an even more impressive growth, from 4.5 million users in 2000 to 67 million in 2009.

While these growth rates are impressive, it is widely known that the Middle East and Africa lags behind the rest of the world in terms of internet penetration and mobile data use.

But this all looks set to change in the next year, and particularly in the next decade. Much of the hard work carried out by the telecoms sector - including operators, vendors and application and content providers - has laid the foundations for massive broadband capacity increases in Africa and the Middle East.

Both fixed line and mobile access is set to benefit, with operators across the MEA region upgrading 3G networks and laying fibre, while undersea cables are giving vital backhaul access to and from Africa.

Operators across the Gulf are making impressive inroads in terms of fibre deployment, with Etisalat claiming to have invested US$1.4 billion to make Abu Dhabi the world's first capital city to have a complete FTTH network.

But while it is possible to look back at the past 10 years to see the huge achievements that the telecom sector has accomplished, it is far more difficult to predict what the next decade holds, and even most industry insiders are hesitant to guess - on the record at least.

But with fibre, HSPA+, WiMAX and LTE all featuring prominently in the plans of operators in the region, it is fair to expect a revolution in data services, even if we don't know exactly what those services will be.

This is certainly the opinion of Samer Salameh, who suggests that a better acronym for LTE would be LTR - or Long Term Revolution.

"By the time that LTE is in place five years from now, we don't know what services will be out there. Operators are trying to build against the unknown," Salameh said (see Managing the Revolution).

While nobody knows for sure quite where the telecoms sector is heading, it looks likely that the next 10 years will be even more fascinating than the last.

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