Sharjah: Telecoms roll-out

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The telecommunications industry in Sharjah and the wider UAE is expecting important changes with the introduction of long-term evolution (LTE) and voice over internet protocol (VoIP) services, as well as mobile number portability (MNP), all of which look set to be launched later this year by the country’s two biggest telecoms firms.

The Emirates Telecommunications Corporation (Etisalat) announced plans in mid-April to launch LTE services in the UAE in the third quarter of this year. Initially, the service will cover the cities of Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai and Sharjah, places where there is the highest data usage. Etisalat signed a deal with Alcatel-Lucent in mid-February to help develop the network, which promises to enable high-speed access to multimedia content such as video conferencing.

“Over the last year we’ve witnessed a 200% growth in data roaming traffic. There is an exploding demand for new technologies and large bandwidth to support and enable the surging data traffic,” Marwan Zawaydeh, Etisalat’s chief technology and information officer, said at the signing of the Alcatel-Lucent deal.

As opportunities for revenue increase outside of the traditional fixed-line and mobile voice segments, operators are always on the lookout for technologies that increase profits. “Voice revenues are decreasing so we are focusing on mobile broadband services and are currently working on the infrastructure,” Zawaydeh told local media.

Etisalat chose China’s Huawei and France’s Alcatel-Lucent to deploy the mobile broadband technology, which is in the installation phase. Trials have already begun and speeds have reached up to 100 MBps. Mohammed Omran, Etisalat’s chairman, said that the firm has so far spent Dh6bn ($1.63bn) building the UAE’s fibre-optic network, in addition to its investments in an LTE network.

Also in April, the Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company, known as du, announced that it would introduce VoIP in the second half of 2011, which could make it the first provider to offer the long-awaited service in the UAE. The country’s other telecoms operators are hoping to launch the service by the fourth quarter of 2011, local media has reported.

The roll-out of VoIP, the ability to make voice phone calls over the internet, means that popular third-party services such as Skype and MindSpring would finally be available to customers in Sharjah, with users likely to benefit from more competitive rates on services like long-distance calling. The cost of VoIP services is still undetermined, Farid Faraidooni, du’s chief commercial officer, told the Khaleej Times. “I don’t want to speculate on pricing before we launch the service,” he said. “I don’t think VoIP service on Skype, Yahoo and other networks comes free of charge as the users first have to get the broadband connection to log in.”

The good news for both Etisalat and du is that the majority of UAE residents already have an internet connection in their home: a survey conducted by the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) in 2010 showed that 65% of respondents had internet in their homes and 36% of internet subscribers were using connection speeds of 256 KBps. Of the survey’s respondents, 18% were from Sharjah.

There were 1.42m internet subscribers in the UAE, as of February 2011, of which 857,003 were broadband users. For the same period, there were 199.3 mobile subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, with 9.9m pre-paid subscribers and 1.2m post-paid users.

The ubiquity of telecoms use across the UAE and in Sharjah was illustrated quite clearly when Sharjah Transport launched a new service in late April allowing passengers to enquire about bus arrival schedules with their cell phones.

Passengers waiting for a bus can send a text message to the number “2272”, followed by the bus stop and the route number, in order to learn when their bus will arrive. “Within a few seconds, the passenger will receive a text message on when the bus is expected to arrive at the stop,” Abdullah Al Zarri, the director-general of Sharjah Transport, said.

In another sign of the emirate’s increasing interconnectivity, the Sharjah International Airport Free Zone (SAIF) also announced an agreement with Etisalat that will see the company deliver enhanced telecoms services to the free zone, benefitting its more than 5200 companies and 35,000 workers.

Though the introduction of MNP has been on hold for quite some time now, it looks like the TRA is planning to launch the service in the third quarter of the year. MNP was reintroduced to both Etisalat and du for testing and the service will be launched as soon as they are ready, local media reported in April. Should they be introduced according to schedule, this trio of services – LTE, VoIP and MNP – will surely give a boost to the telecoms sector in the emirate and indeed the country as a whole.

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