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TELECOMMUNICATIONS
Telecom operators in the Middle East are going all-in on 5G. But is it really the future?
BEN MACK

5G. 5G. 5G. Have we mentioned 5G yet?

Speak with anyone in the telecommunications industry – most certainly including in the Middle East – and it seems all they want to talk about these days is 5G. There’s a simple reason, too: there’s big money to be made with 5G – potentially. According to Sweden-based telecommunications firm Ericsson, 5G technologies could be worth a staggering $1.2 trillion worldwide by 2026. Much of that money will also likely come from providing networks and services for corporate customers and governments; also according to Ericsson, there are expected to be just 30 million people in the Middle East subscribed to 5G services – such as with a 5G phone – by 2024.

Unsurprisingly, every telecommunications company in the region (and the world) has been pouring in enormous amounts of money in a race to roll-out 5G services for businesses and the general public. In the UAE alone, for example, Etisalat is busy building more than 1,000 towers to allow for the transmission of 5G signals, while du is constructing more than 800. Over in Saudi Arabia, STC has already built several hundred 5G towers – and is building several hundred more. Many more towers have also been built in Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman – even Iraq and Lebanon, where 4G coverage still remains spotty for millions of people.

Every telco has also been quick to proclaim itself as the “first” in the region to offer 5G services (who really has been the first is a matter of intense debate, but a strong candidate is STC, who launched a 5G network in Saudi Arabia in May 2018). Yet the difference between 4G and 5G, despite the hype, really isn’t that significant for the average person, at least when it comes to calling: while 4G has a “latency” – a term for the delay between sending a signal, such as saying something into a phone, and when that signal is received on the other end – of up to 30 milliseconds, 5G is about one millisecond. But these are milliseconds we’re talking about – 1/1000th of a second.

However, at the most recent Gitex Technology Week – the Middle East’s largest tech show, held over a week this past October in Dubai – the lack of currently available 5G devices was high on the list of every telco executive’s talking points.

“As we are in the roll-out stage, one of the challenges is scarcity and the limited availability of 5G-enabled handsets in the market,” said Saleem Alblooshi, chief technology officer at Dubai-based du, during a panel discussion on the pace of the regional 5G rollout. “But this will be overcome soon – almost all of the handset providers have announced their road map, and 5G will come soon.”

Fadi Pharaon, president for the Middle East and Africa at Ericsson added: “Everyone is looking at 5G as a way to improve the user experience, but the real step forward is the promise of creating new revenue streams for service providers.” Hatem Bamatraf, chief technology officer at Etisalat, admitted to the challenges. “We know that 5G might be delayed in some specific countries because the business case is not viable,” he said.

“However, if there were other players that could supply the technology with a cheaper option, then this could accelerate the introduction of 5G.” Bamatraf added: “Unfortunately, the vendor landscape has gone through a lot of changes. A lot of [players] merged, some of them have disappeared and exited the market, and we end up now with fewer vendors.”

The customer service conundrum

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November 2019

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