Market Trend

Middle East: concentrating on content

The signs are that the next 12 months might well see the long awaited dream of an ‘Arabic internet’ finally come to fruition.

Consumers of online content in the Middle East have historically been inhibited by two main issues – the lack of content in their own language and hosted in their own region, and the poor penetration of good quality broadband networks to carry such Arabic content as exists.

According to the ITU, fixed-line broadband penetration in the Middle East rose from a rock bottom level of below 1% at the end of 2005 to hit over 11% by the beginning of 2011. Add to this the huge investment in next-generation mobile networks across the region, and you have a rapidly improving base of users hungry for content of quality. Content geared to the tastes of this user base is now much more widely available, and during both 2010 and 2011 we have witnessed the phenomenon of the regional hosting of this content, thanks to the efforts of strong local carrier brands like Etisalat and du. The outlook for 2012 is for this trend to continue, and probably accelerate. It is a safe bet that regional internet penetration will rise and network utilisation improve too.

There’s still a long way to go though. The World Bank estimates that there are more than 320 million Arabic speakers in the world, but less than 1% of all online content is in Arabic. Etisalat would like to see this change, and in 2011 launched Smart Hub, which it calls a ‘content ecosystem’ for the benefit of the company’s regional base of network operator and content developer customers. It plans to spend 2012 further popularising Smart Hub. Ali Amiri, executive vice president of Etisalat’s Carrier and Wholesale services division, said Smart Hub will allow all parties with an interest in the Arabic content market to have access to key technologies and services to allow for more effective distribution of that content, while facilitating partnership between operators and content providers as they address the needs of regional consumers. “Smart Hub is part of our company’s plan to help wholesale customers move away from reliance on traditional telecoms revenue sources,” he says.

He said Smart Hub allows Content Delivery Networks (CDNs), Content Management Systems (CMSs), Conditional Access Providers (CAPs) as well as other carriers to partner with Etisalat so that they can reach out to potential customers on a variety of devices, providing access also to billing systems and customer care services, removing the need for companies to invest in developing their own content distribution systems.

So what is being done to provide the access networks to carry all this content into Arabic homes? Fixed-line broadband adoption in the Middle East is not, it has to be admitted, an even affair, with a significant digital divide between the haves and the have nots. On the mobile front, a generally young population across the Middle East, which likes to consume its internet content on the move, is behind the wide uptake of devices that consume data on mobile broadband services.

Developments in 2012

  • Dubai-based operator du has plans to popularise its Anayou portal, a digital destination that provides online shopping, entertainment and gaming, aimed at encouraging content to be generated and consumed locally.

  • When GBI lights its $500 million intra-Gulf network, every country in the region will enjoy the dividends of 100G, state-of-the-art DWDM technology. GBI says the ring will meet wholesale capacity demands in the region into the future, and facilitate much swapping of internet traffic between Arabic nations.

  • Tata’s TGN-Gulf cable will perform a similar function on a wider scale by taking traffic from the Gulf on to south Asia. TGN-Gulf landing parties are Nawras (Oman), Etisalat (United Arab Emirates), Qatar Telecom (Qatar), Bahrain Internet Exchange (Bahrain), and Mobily (Saudi Arabia).