Mobile network upgrades are fast under way in Qatar, where ICT is increasingly becoming a target sector for public authorities and private investors alike. Friendly competition revolving around network speeds and coverage has developed between the state’s two carriers Ooredoo, the former monopoly holder and largest company by revenue and customer market share, and Vodafone Qatar, the 2009 newcomer. With both carriers racing to achieve higher data speeds and greater coverage areas, consumers, and the ICT landscape more broadly, are guaranteed to benefit.
Both carriers have pushed ahead with recent 4G LTE Advanced (4G+) network roll-outs. Ooredoo was first to announce this milestone in December 2014, stating that the introduction of the services had raised the company’s theoretical peak data rates from 150 to 225 Mbps in specified areas around Doha. It added that users could realistically expect top speeds of around 50 Mbps. Vodafone Qatar launched its 4G+ network six months later, in May 2015, with a theoretical top speed of 150 Mbps and an average expected speed of around 40 Mbps.
The fluctuations in network speeds come from a series of variables, including physical obstacles to coverage, quality of network equipment and the choice of user device. To demonstrate their network capacities to the broader public, both companies encouraged users to report their actual mobile network speeds in a May 2015 competition. Using online speed test tools, users reported the highest bitrates they could achieve on Ooredoo’s network was 190 Mbps, while the highest on Vodafone’s was 149 Mbps. Both rates are far higher than even the fixed broadband connections in many countries.
Casting A Wide Net
While competition on speed continues to drive progress, both companies are also investing in expanding and improving their coverage areas. In May 2015 Vodafone announced a series of network upgrades that it claimed gave it Qatar’s best network coverage. Throughout the rest of 2015 investment continued at a brisk pace. In the first 10 months of that year, for example, the state’s second-largest telecoms operator spent more than QR650m ($178.4m) on mobile network upgrades, replacing 65% of its network with new equipment to triple 4G coverage and overall data capacity. These investments boosted Vodafone’s coverage area with 134 new outdoor sites, 42 indoor sites, 290 LTE outdoor sites and 25 LTE indoor sites.
Ooredoo has also been working to continue improving its network coverage. Beginning in March 2015 the company began deploying small-cell equipment; network kits that are smaller and more discreet than traditional towers. In August 2015 it concluded a deal with Finland-based Nokia to analyse usage patterns in dense areas, like Doha’s Souq Waqif, and to deploy the discreet network equipment on the rooftops of shops, restaurants and cafés. In September 2015 Ooredoo also announced 4G+ upgrades for 400 outdoor sites across the state, including Al Shamal, Al Khor, Al Wakrah, Al Wukair, Umm Saeed, Sealine resort and Khor Al Udaid. It also completed 4G network upgrades on 70 indoor sites in malls, business centres and residences. The operator has been progressing on network upgrades for rural areas in a programme it calls Operation Desert. The upgrades include the introduction of wideband antenna systems, which will improve network flexibility and capacity for users in Qatar’s popular desert campsites.
Across The Spectrum
Both carriers are also rolling out the latest mobile data infrastructure technologies, which will allow them to use their existing infrastructure more efficiently. In August 2015 both Ooredoo and Vodafone announced the launch of carrier-aggregation technology on their mobile networks. In the past few years, debates about spectrum allocation – the process of choosing which frequencies companies can use to transmit cellular data – have been key to mobile markets worldwide. Governments typically reserve the right to release specific wavelengths for mobile services, and many operators work in frequencies between 700 and 2400 MHz, depending on a number of factors. Lower frequencies are in high demand because they allow heavy data to travel farther and reach deeper into physical obstacles like buildings, meaning that telecoms firms can cut costs by building less infrastructure.
As a result of competition for broadcasting rights, operators traditionally roll out their mobile network infrastructure to work on the specific bands for which they have operating licences. Without close coordination among governments, telecoms operators and device manufacturers, mismatches can occur between popular devices and the services available. When Ooredoo activated its 4G network in 2013, for example, it did so on the 800-Mhz and 2400-Mhz bands. Certain popular devices, like Apple’s iPhone 5, were incompatible with these frequencies at the time. Capacity over a given frequency is another potential issue that can arise. Over time, as user demand and load requirements increase, broadcasting over a single frequency is not enough. Operators therefore invest in infrastructure that serves multiple frequencies. The result is a more flexible, but also a more fragmented mobile broadband network. In the past, switching between infrastructure and frequency bands was possible, but it could also be clumsy, resulting in slower connectivity and even interruptions in service.
The industry’s answer to this issue has been the new technology, carrier aggregation. Carrier aggregation was first commercially launched in 2011 by Russia-based Yota, which partnered with China-based Huawei to deploy the network. By 2013 devices that could actually take advantage of carrier aggregation were becoming available, and operators in other countries like South Korea were also deploying the technology commercially. This technology allows operators to utilise assets across the spectrum, aggregating the capacity of multiple frequencies for a single user. That could mean better service and faster data rates for end users. The August 2015 launch of 3-band LTE carrier aggregation by both of Qatar’s major operators marks a milestone in the country’s mobile infrastructure development. “The aim is to provide a theoretical maximum speed of 375 Mbps, which will be available to customers as and when high-speed devices come onto the market,” Ooredoo said in a statement to the press in August 2015. According to Ramy Boctor, chief technology officer at Vodafone Qatar, in conversation with local press at Vodafone’s launch the same month, the technology could, in some cases, quadruple user speeds.
The focus on mobile network upgrades seems to be in line with consumer behaviour. The rate of smartphone usage to access the internet in Qatar more than doubled across the population, from 35% to 71% between 2010 and 2013, according to 2014 survey data released by the Ministry of Transport and Communications, then known as the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (ictQATAR). The use of desktop computers to access the web dropped by almost the same proportion during the period, from 70% to 33%.
As more users choose mobile devices to connect to the web, the flexible and efficient operation of mobile infrastructure is set to be key. Improving mobile connectivity and ensuring users’ access to the web through stable connections will likely facilitate other ICT projects in the state. The authorities, for instance, have been partnering with private players to encourage the growth of Qatar’s e-commerce landscape. The state’s business-to-customer e-commerce market is the seventh-largest in the MENA region and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 17% over the next five years, according to ictQATAR’s Qatar National e-Commerce Roadmap 2015.
In terms of spending, however, Qatar comes out on top. The state has the highest e-commerce spend per user at $3453 per year and an average of $264 per transaction. There is also significant room for growth. Only an estimated 300,000 out of 2.13m residents bought products online in 2014, and only 20% of those transactions were made with mobile devices. Improved network speeds could also be useful in the music and video markets, which make up 10% of the total e-commerce ecosystem by value. Despite this low base, use of the internet to download and stream music and movies has been on the rise. Between 2013 and 2015, the share of internet users that downloaded or streamed music at least once a week grew from 43% to 53%, according to the survey “Media Use in the Middle East 2015” by the Northwestern University in Qatar and the Doha Film Institute.
Improving speeds and coverage areas could create opportunities for telecoms players and the many stakeholders who stand to gain from the new markets that these upgrades have the potential to create.
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