When the UAE went live with its etisalat fourth-generation broadband network in September, it joined an elite group of 21 pioneering countries to introduce super-fast 4G services online. To be offered to laptop users by December through new USB dongles and to mobile customers next year when new handheld devices permit, online 4G consumers can expect to surf at "downlink data service of up to 100 Mbps," etisalat pledges, to offer blisteringly fast access to video and data content. Not far behind, du has confirmed that its consumers will have access to 4G services some time in 2012.
The 4G race has real relevancy for consumers who want more powerful internet connectivity and for telcos who are depending on higher revenues from more data usage amid declining traditional voice telephony.
In its latest report in October on Long Term Evolution (LTE, a form of 4G broadband), the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) confirmed that the UAE is ahead of the bell curve amid a planet-wide push to usher in new, faster broadband.
As part of the first tier of countries to usher in 4G - including two of Saudi Arabia's telecom networks last month - the UAE is ahead in the race, given that 248 other telecom operators around the globe have only now committed to LTE or are still conducting field trials.
Alan Hadden, GSA president, said that less than half of the trials group is expected to have full fourth-generation networks in play next year. "Based on GSA's research, we are confident that at least 103 LTE networks will be commercially launched by end-2012."
Roz Roseboro, principal analyst with Analysys Mason, a telecoms, technology and media advisory firm, said the UAE and Saudi Arabia telecoms 4G lead is unlikely to be emulated by neighbouring countries in the Mena region for some time to come. Roseboro said in an October 20 report that "although LTE was launched in Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2011, we do not expect LTE to be a major factor in other Mena countries until 2014 or 2015".
Data revenue is expected to surge for telecoms in the region, Roseboro said. "In 2010, non-voice revenue (which includes messaging, handset data and mobile broadband) represented 15 per cent of mobile revenue. We forecast this will grow to 30 per cent by 2016. Handset data revenue will grow the most rapidly, at a compound annual growth rate of 20 per cent between 2010 and 2016, while mobile broadband revenue will grow nearly as quickly, at a CAGR of 19 per cent."
The roll-out of 4G, meanwhile, is in full swing, with efforts continuing to build upon the September live effort by etisalat. Ali Al Ahmad, chief corporate communications officer for the company, said it is nearing an actual consumer launch date of 4G to its 7.5 million mobile subscribers by last count.
"Yes, it's ready and we have covered over 80 per cent of the UAE," Al Ahmad told Gulf News at Gitex 2011, noting that the new 4G service was up and running in September after months of successful trials. Al Ahmad said "the speed is incomparable to any network", and is three times faster than 3G.
Mohammad Abdul Rehim, GSM & Mobile Broadband, Network Systems, MEA for Nokia Siemens Networks, said his company has worked with regional telecoms since 2009 to realize rapid 4G advancements in the Middle East. Nokia Siemens Networks is providing telecoms with the technical expertise and equipment to upgrade 3G broadband to 4G. "We worked alongside Zain Bahrain to make the first LTE call in April 2010, achieving download data speeds of 70 Mbps. We have also been pre-trialing commercial 4G services across the region, showcasing the benefits of this advanced technology."
"Nokia Siemens Networks currently has five LTE trials ongoing, and six LTE contracts that have been signed in the Middle East and 44 worldwide commercial LTE deals," Abdul Rehim told Gulf News. "These are only a sample of the work we are undertaking in the region, having conducted trials in Bahrain, KSA, Qatar, UAE, Lebanon and Pakistan."
In the UAE, specifically, the company is working with etisalat and du to install new eco-friendly equipment to upgrade to 4G. "We are currently working with both etisalat and du across a range of different telecom contracts, including LTE. We recently helped etisalat with the Metro Green Line to implement their in-building solution - which is 4G ready - and we are now deploying our LTE base stations for du across the country," he said.
"Nokia Siemens Networks is delivering its latest Single Ran Flexi Base Station to the UAE. It is one of our leading LTE products and offers a combination of high performance and capabilities in supporting GSM, HSPA+ (3G) and LTE (4G) via Software Defined Radio," Abdul Rehim said. "The Flexi Base Station has been designed taking into consideration the extreme weather conditions from ME region, and it's deployed as part of our Green Solutions, which make use of renewable sources of energy, with solar and wind-powered sites."
The company is working with etisalat and du to install 4G technologies that bring higher speed broadband, but are also still compatible with existing slower 2G and 3G networks.
The largest difference for users when 4G is fully implemented across the UAE will be what's called "anytime, anywhere," instant access to high-speed data. "4G is broadband services on the move," said Abdul Rehim. "This is a completely new concept that affects the way of living of everyone. The fact that broadband data services are available in everyone's hand all the time regardless of where you are opens all type of opportunities at business level and at end-user level. This is a platform for all kind of data services, including video-based applications, as the line between broadband services at home and mobile broadband services disappears.
"This places the UAE among the leading nations worldwide for wireless telecommunication services. As with so many other infrastructure projects, the UAE is offering its population and companies an advanced location well suited to facilitate growth and innovation that can only be found in very few locations around the world," he said.
The writer is Senior Reporter, Gulf News