14 Aug 2008

Vendors and operators show one-size does not fit all across the Middle East

This morning I had the pleasure of meeting a marketing contact with responsibility for the Middle East, Pakistan and Africa, representing one of the major network infrastructure vendors. The purpose of the meeting was to work out the timing and topic for the presentation to be made by the company's speaker at our December "Towards a Broadband World" event in Dubai.

It is always gratifying when a sponsor's thoughts about selecting a value-adding topic are not too far from my own. In this case, we wanted to urge our customer to talk in quite broad terms about the range of competing and complementary broadband wireless access technologies being evaluated by mobile, fixed and integrated operators in the region. I felt this was important for a number of reasons. Firstly, we are working hard to broaden the focus of the conference well beyond issues concerning either pure-play mobility businesses or the mobile-specific business units of carriers with both cellular and wireline assets. I am confident we will be successful, so I was keen for our customer to take advantage of speaking in a plenary sessions, when the themes addressed need to be broader than the issues tackled in technology-specific breakouts. Secondly, I felt that a more holistic look at all forms of broadband access made sense in the light of what I was told by a colleague who represented me a few weeks ago in face-to-face meetings with a number of operators in the Middle East.

Aaron Boasman, who works in our Networks & Infrastructure team, came back from a quick tour of the region armed with interesting insights. He was told by the GM of Corporate Affairs at one country's incumbent operator told Aaron that the company was more bullish about the prospects for fixed broadband access than the mobile version on the grounds of the robustness of the service. Certainly at the time of that meeting, the company had not deployed WiMAX, unlike its principal competitor in the mobile space. On another leg of the journey, Aaron was told by one operator that WiMAX deployment has been signidficantly delayed mainly as a result of the country's unsatisfactory regulatory regime. In that particular meeting, HSPA was given a very favourable review due to the country's poor quality copper network and very under-developed FTTx.

These snippets confirmed for me that when telecoms industry watchers attempt to speak in broad terms about trends in a given world region, they need to be mindful that these regions are not always neatly homogenous. A look at Zain, whose footprint extends across and beyond the Middle East, support this view.

Matthew Reed, writing for our fortnightly Middle East & Africa Wireless Analyst research service this month flagged up Zain's imminent market entry in Saudi Arabia. Matthew writes that this new market's huge potential for high-speed Internet-access services is sparking interest in the group's wider wireless broadband strategy. The MEAWA story reports that Zain has had Nokia-Siemens Networks and Motorola deploy HSPA in key cities in anticipation of high demand for beoadband services with mobility, the pent up appetite for which has possibly been frustrated by slow DSL rollout by incumbent STC.

The MEAWA story goes on to note that Zain has embarked on a number of different technology paths across its footprint. For example, in Kuwait, Zain's original 'home market', the operator has launched a 7.2Mbps HSPA network that enables video calling, streaming TV and sports footage and movie-clip downloads. Customers there use a Huawei HSDPA dongle. This seems to work well in tiny Kuwait, which accounts for only 3% of the group's subscription count but one-fifth of its revenues.

MEAWA notes that in Suadan, Zain has launched a 3.5G network in the capital capital, Khartoum, and runs both HSDPA and WiMAX networks in the tiny Gulf state of Bahrain.

In the longer term, writes Reed, Zain plans to deploy wireless-broadband services in many more countries, and is looking out for WiMAX licenses in several African countries.

It is proving very enjoyable to navigate my way around these varied market. I am confident that those of you who join us in Dubai in December will see the diversity of market conditions and operators' technology choices fully reflected in a compelling conference agenda.