Since its first commercial launch in 2001, the spread of third-generation, or 3G, mobile networks has redefined how people use the web, providing broadbandvelocity access to consumers on the go. Global uptake mushroomed in response: subscriptions rose from 268m in 2007 to 2.1bn in 2013, an annual increase of 40%, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The latest iteration, fourth generation long term evolution (4G LTE), has been spreading just as quickly since its own commercial debut in Scandinavia in 2009. The year to May 2013 alone saw 100 such networks power on, nearly doubling the number of countries using 4G technology, says the UK-based Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA). As of February 2014, there were 268 of them operating in 100 countries, far exceeding a GSA forecast in May 2013.
Qatar is only just behind its neighbours. In the GCC, 4G service began in 2011 when Saudi Telecom Company (STC), Mobily and Zain in Saudi Arabia, Etisalat in the UAE and Viva Bahrain all switched on new networks. Omantel and Viva Kuwait followed in 2012, as in 2013 did Nawras, Oman-based but owned by Ooredoo, formerly known as Qatar Telecom.
As for Qatar, Ooredoo launched the country’s first 4G network in April 2013, contracting Finland-based Nokia Siemens Networks to set up the infrastructure. One perk, flexible base station hardware, allows users to make calls with 3G and GSM infrastructure yet access the web on the faster LTE network. The company says its investments in this system were a response to customer demand. “Mobile broadband use in Qatar is growing at a dramatic pace and so is subscriber demand for faster mobile broadband,” said Waleed Al Sayed, Ooredoo’s chief operating officer, after the network’s completion. Initial coverage allowed web access by USB modem or home router only in Doha and Sealine beach. Over the rest of 2013, the company expanded coverage areas and opened access to mobile devices.
Vodafone Qatar, the country’s other operator, says it too has plans to roll-out 4G in summer 2014. Upon releasing its quarterly results in June 2013, the firm said LTE service would be a top priority. First, however, it says it needs to gather more information about the market prior to a commercial launch. “There are multiple solutions that 4G offers, like mobile web, home broadband as a fixed-line complement, media broadcasts, etc – the list goes on,” Kyle Whitehall, CEO of Vodafone Qatar, told OBG. “We need to see where customer demand lies and go in that direction.”
Indeed, 4G LTE has the potential to rival the speeds of fixed broadband. In Qatar many connections still use ADSL, a technology that funnels internet access through copper telephone wires. Once the Qatar National Broadband Network (Qnbn) reaches its goal of bringing fibre-optic internet to 95% of the population – by 2016, it says – fixed lines could see a welcome boost in speed.
That will not toll the knell for 4G home connections.
For consumers of moderate habits, in-house LTE may still be wiser than fixed broadband. The technology could, however, bring fast connections to sparsely populated areas not covered by fibre-optics.
4G uptake is also opening doors for hardware producers. In May 2013 Huawei, a Chinese producer of telecoms kit, announced that revenue from its Middle East operations had risen 18%, to $2.08bn, largely thanks to 4G roll-outs. “Operators’ shift toward softwaredefined networks, IT outsourcing and adoption of 4G...are all going to play a key role in Huawei’s future business,” Shi Yaohong, president of Huawei Middle East, told Reuters. The company has helped Ooredoo’s Oman arm, Nawras, launch 4G in the sultanate and, in June 2013, signed a deal with Menatelecom in Bahrain to set up 4G services there. Ericsson, a Swedish firm, has partnered with Omantel in Oman and Zain in Bahrain.
Vodafone Qatar has also chosen a hardware provider, the global firm Alcatel Lucent. The launch cannot come too soon. A second LTE network would benefit both consumers and companies, speeding up pageloads and keeping prices down. 4G is, after all, the new 3G.
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