In Bahrain, 4G mobile data services have been available since 2014, with operators having since upgraded to faster LTE-Advanced (LTE-A) networks. The kingdom is now working on the rollout of 5G networks, which will provide substantially faster download speeds and lower latency, allowing for the emergence of a range of new technologies based around machine-to-machine communication.
In theory, 5G mobile internet will offer consumers connection speeds of 20 Gbps, more than 20 times the maximum speeds achievable on the current LTE-A networks. In practice, tests suggest that users can realistically expect browsing speeds of approximately 500 Mbps to 1.5 Gbps, depending on the network, and download speeds of around 100-500 Mbps.
In May 2018 Qatar was the first country worldwide to launch a commercial 5G network, albeit one at frequencies that offer only slightly faster speeds than the latest iterations of 4G networks. In December 2018 US operator AT&T launched 5G networks in 12 US cities, with seven other cities to receive the technology by the first half of 2019. Meanwhile, in Asia, South Korea is expecting to see its first 5G network roll out in March 2019.
No 5G-enabled phones are currently commercially available, but at least three major smartphone manufacturers – including South Korea’s Samsung – have stated their intention to launch devices capable of connecting to 5G networks in 2019.
Although smartphones will be the most visible aspect of the technology for a majority of consumers, its main impact is likely to be felt in other domains, particularly in the field of machine-tomachine communication thanks to its low latency, or the time it takes for each individual data packet to travel across the network. This will facilitate the development of technologies such as self-driving vehicles, by allowing them to communicate quickly enough with each other to avoid accidents, and the internet of things, as well as aid the transition to the Fourth Industrial Revolution more generally.
In mid-2017 Kuwaiti-headquartered local network operator Zain Bahrain announced that it intended to roll out its 5G network by the end of 2018, but later pushed the launch date back to 2019 at the earliest. No other mobile network operators nor the sector regulator, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), have given clear indications of when commercial services will start.
Nonetheless, ensuring 5G readiness is a key element of the kingdom’s fourth iteration of the National Telecommunications Plan, which runs from 2016 to 2019. As part of this strategy, the regulator established a 5G frequencies working group, which held its first meeting in April 2018.
In the meantime, local operators are gearing up for the arrival of 5G. Bahrain Telecommunications Company (Batelco) conducted the first 5G trial in the kingdom in mid-2017, in conjunction with its Swedish multinational technology partner Ericsson.
In May 2018 subsidiary of Saudi Telecom Company VIVA said that it would be ready to launch 5G services once the TRA made the necessary spectrum available. The following month VIVA held the first public demonstration of a 5G network in Bahrain, where it trialled several 5G-enabled devices and achieved speeds of up to 1.5 Gbps. This compares to speeds of up to 225 Mbps on the current LTE-A network, which has been available since July 2017.
“Once one company launches a 5G network, all other network operators will follow,” Ahmed Al Hujairy, group CEO and chairman at local IT company Gulf Future Business, told OBG. “While the amount of investment required for infrastructure is quite high, the kingdom’s relatively small size means that the costs involved will be lower than in many other markets, which will facilitate a rapid rollout,” he said.
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