AHEAD OF THE CURVE: The Middle East – looking to the future

With LTE deployments well underway in the Middle East, the region is now looking at cloud and M2M opportunities for new sources of revenue in 2014.

"Unique" seems to be the all-encompassing word for the Middle Eastern market. From the distinctive loop architecture of its subsea cabling to its insatiable demand for data, the Middle Eastern telecoms market will continue to progress in 2014.

Predicted by Cisco to have the strongest mobile data traffic growth of any region this year, the Middle East has been steaming ahead with its LTE roll-out strategy.

"There will be a lot more focus on mobile broadband, broadband connectivity and the delivery of content over fibre networks in 2014," says Jawad Abbassi, founder and general manager of Arab Advisors Group, based in Amman, Jordan.

Moving forward, the region is looking to upgrade and advance its extensive region-wide network to compete, and keep up with, its global competitors; continuing to deliver services and connectivity to the best of its ability.

Climbing with cloud

The cloud looks to be a key area of growth in 2014 and regional telcos are positioned well to take advantage of the opportunities.

Analyst firm IDC expects telcos in the Middle East to play a more central role within the global cloud ecosystem in 2014, by controlling aspects such as delivery, storage, solutions and support services.

"There has been a big jump into cloud from most operators," says Abbassi. "Many are offering at least some kind of cloud service, especially to the SME market."

Abbassi believes that the development of cloud services will go hand-in-hand with the expected surge in broadband activity.

"The more broadband connectivity there is, the more conducive the market is to having cloud services and adopting cloud services, so it's kind of a positive feedback loop," Abbassi says.

Ali Amiri, EVP of carrier and wholesale services at UAE-based operator Etisalat, and who will be speaking at both Capacity Middle East 2014 and Smart Media 2014, views cloud as a major opportunity: "Cloud is a dominant theme and is emerging as an area where trusted business partners, with robust scalable, regional and domestic networks, like Etisalat, will play a critical role, both as a partner to major global cloud providers and in offering our own cloud services," Amiri says.

Etisalat launched its Cloud Compute service last year, which is an infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) offering targeting SMEs and enterprises.

Additional infrastructure will be required to accommodate the growing number of additional cloud services.

Paul Black, director of telecoms and media for IDC Middle East, Africa and Turkey in particular expects there to be a notable growth in data centre development.

"Investment in data centres will remain a focal point of operators" investment strategies," he says. "The development of smart cities, as well as the expansion of multinational companies in the Middle East, will increase pressure on local businesses to become more mature in the use of ICT applications."

The M2M movement

Driven by the demand for faster and more advanced practices in varying industries, the deployment of M2M solutions has become a key technology focus area for Middle Eastern businesses.

"In 2014, regional telcos should aim to launch more innovative, industry-specific M2M applications and acquire improved application development capabilities," a report from IDC states. "In order to do this, telecoms operators will have to take a central role in developing a technical ecosystem around M2M, including devices, innovative applications and delivery platforms."

Internet of Things (IoT) applications in the Middle East are fast becoming more vertically aligned and operators are increasingly looking at ways of targeting specific industries though M2M technology.

Amiri notes Etisalat's growing focus on M2M in the region and particularly the launch of its control centre last year.

"We are focussed on M2M solutions and the launch of the M2M control centre last year allows enterprise customers to launch, manage and rapidly scale connected M2M device businesses or M2M deployments," Amiri says.

As a result, opportunities have been created in verticals such as government, retail, oil and gas.

"In 2014, the focus will be on 'Connected World, Connected Things', everything has a connectivity element, which sets the stage for M2M growth," Amiri says. "There is a vast opportunity to connect almost everything at both the consumer and enterprise levels."

However, according to Abbassi, when it comes to developing new technology, the Middle East takes a different approach to its competing regions worldwide.

"Research and development tends to happen on the vendor side, and they co-operate with operators to deploy the new technology," Abbassi explains.

"It is not as you would find in industrial countries, where the operators tend to lead the technology vendors into the roll-out."

Data demand

Perhaps the most notable factor about the Middle East is its demand for data. Rory Cole, CEO at Reliance Globalcom notes the extraordinary data demand in the region.

"We have some customers in Saudi Arabia and we're amazed at the amount of capacity they need," he says.

The region has experienced huge success with 4G and with this demand for data only set to increase in 2014, carriers in the region are looking to upgrade and expand their LTE networks to meet demand and deliver high-speed, high-quality services. 

The United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia - the Middle East's most progressive countries according to Abbassi - have made notable progress with their LTE deployments over the last 12 months, with Qatar recently completing the nationwide roll-out of its 4G network.

Ooredoo's chief wholesale and international officer, Yousuf Al Kubaisi, believes the proliferation of LTE is having a knock-on effect across the region. "The region has seen tremendous international bandwidth growth in recent times. It is gradually becoming the preferred region for business services," he says.

Amiri agrees, adding that as demand for bandwidth increases from subscribers, mobile operators have deployed even greater data connections speeds. "LTE is central to growth strategies of Middle East operators," he says. "I think LTE-A is the next major milestone in the evolution of LTE and is a crucial solution for addressing the anticipated increase in speed. The benefits are more than just speed; it supports connectivity, packing more speed into the same amount of spectrum."

The next generation

With LTE-A set to be the next step for connectivity in the region, the Middle East is likely to keep its label as a highly competitive market.

"Competition is always good for businesses as it leads to innovation. Therefore healthy competition encourages change by using the right technology to launch innovative services and improve customer experience," says Amiri.

Amiri believes the competitive nature of the region will push operators to deliver faster, more advanced connectivity.

"We are building for the future and are fully aware of the ICT potential; hence we will continue to invest next-generation connectivity with a focus on FTTH, wireless, 3G and 4G/LTE," he says.

The region is dominated by home-grown operators and and despite moves by certain global carriers to enter the market, Abbassi notes this is unlikely to change. The region's key players include Etisalat (UAE), STC (Saudi Arabia), Ooredoo (Qatar), Zain (Kuwait), Orascom, Batelco (Bahrain), du (UAE) and Omantel (Oman), and with the exception of Vodafone, this is how it will stay.

Vodafone has a subsidiary in Qatarand although it has a number of alliances with operators in other countries in the Middle East, does not have a key presence anywhere else in the region. But all this seems to work in the Middle East's favour.

"Recent studies point out that mobile penetration in the region has set global benchmarks, with mobile subscriptions expected to cross the 300 million mark in 2014," says Amiri. "In relation to the rest of the world, the region is quick to adopt emerging technologies and use them to drive smarter businesses."

Capacity will be holding a Smart Media event - at which Ali Amiri, EVP of carrier and wholesale services at Etisalat, will be speaking - as part of Capacity Middle East 2014tomorrow (March 6).

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