Government-led initiatives lead the way in innovation in Abu Dhabi's IT industry

 

The UAE’s move further upwards in the 2015 “Global Network Readiness Index” underscores the steady improvements made to ICT infrastructure in what was already a modern and highly advanced environment. In addition, these improvements are also aligned with the emirate’s long-term economic and social development strategy, the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, which aims to ensure availability of efficient ICT infrastructure and promote ICT adoption.

ICT is a central component in Abu Dhabi’s goal for increasing the emirate’s regional and global competitiveness. It is also essential for the provision of services to residents, improvements in cybersecurity (for business and individuals), transparency in governance and efficiency in public service delivery. It was in this context that the Abu Dhabi-based International Data Corporation expected ICT spending regionally to surpass $270bn in 2015, making the region the world’s second-biggest growth market for IT.

Key Numbers:

According to the Abu Dhabi Statistical Yearbook 2015, ICT contributed 2.1% of the emirate’s GDP at current prices in 2014, the same percentage as in 2013, with the sector registering 4% growth for the year. This was up from 2.6% in 2013. ICT’s share in non-oil GDP declined slightly to 4.3% in 2014 from 4.6% a year earlier.

The sector’s gross output as a percentage of GDP was 3.1% for the year, up from 3% in 2013. Capital formation as a percentage of GDP for the sector was 0.3 in 2014, the same as in 2013.

The percentage of the emirate’s population covered by the internet has remained consistent for the past four years at 100%.

Coverage of HSPA+, or evolved high-speed packet access, and long-term evolution (LTE) between the two players, Etisalat and du, encompasses over 88% of the UAE population. In May 2015 the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority’s (TRA) benchmarking report showed that for 2014 the two operators had scores of more than 98% for completion of indoor and outdoor calls in the UAE, with voice quality surpassing 95%.

In terms of data transmission speeds over 4G LTE, du came in at 7.56 Mbps and uploads of 900 Kbps, and Etisalat showed downloads of 12.68 Mbps, and 2.13 Mbps for uploads. Reports and surveys in the year, however, found that relatively high tariffs on data usage via mobile phones was a key factor for some customers opting to avoid using the potential data power of their devices and service offerings, as reported in local media. Overall, however, the relatively high purchasing power of many Abu Dhabi residents means that mobile data usage is not particularly expensive.

Residential broadband subscription outweighs business subscribers by a substantial margin in the UAE, with 969,000 residential subscriptions compared with 121,000 business users in 2014, but with subscriber growth rates still rather close: residential growth was at 4.7%, with business at 3.4%.

Broadband ARPU: 

After it increased between 2011 and 2013, average revenue per user (ARPU) for internet has declined, with the TRA speculating that the average rise over that time was due to customers opting for higher-speed packages. Broadband ARPU for the business bracket grew from Dh1047 ($285) in 2013 to Dh1136 ($309) in 2014. Residential ARPU, however, declined in the same period, down from Dh270 ($73.49) in 2013 to Dh256 ($69.68) in 2014. This resulted in overall broadband ARPU declining from Dh357 ($97.18) in 2013 to Dh354 ($96.36) in 2014, according to the TRA’s Annual Sector Review 2015.

Global Rankings:

International rankings, namely, the World Bank’s Network Readiness Index; the ICT Development Index, published by the UN International Telecommunication Union; and the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, saw improvements in each of the three categories monitored by the regulator.

In terms of network readiness, the UAE came in 1st place amongst Arab states, up one spot over its position in 2014. Coming in at 23rd place globally (out of 143 countries assessed), the improvement showed a steady rise from 24th in 2014 and 25th in 2013. With the exception of “affordability”, the UAE ranks in the top 10 for nine pillars out of the total 10 pillars of the index. Topping the list in terms of key areas is the importance of ICT to the government’s vision, at first place; mobile network coverage, also at first; and the impact of ICT on access to basic services and its use and government efficiency, both also at first place. Areas where further improvement is needed include the number of procedures to enforce a contract, internet and telephony competition, and fixed broadband internet tariffs (137th, 124th and 120th, respectively).

E-Government: 

Abu Dhabi’s e-government strategy first got under way in 2005, using various platforms to improve government effectiveness and service delivery. This continues today with its evolution into “smart government”, while the goal remains setting up a modern, efficient and constituent-centric e-government to match the best in the world, according to the Abu Dhabi Systems and Information Centre (ADSIC), an independent body with the responsibility to modernise government services through ICT. ADSIC supervises the Abu Dhabi e-government gateway, which is an advanced platform for local and federal government entities to deliver their services, allowing the public at the same time to download Abu Dhabi government’s smart apps.

ADSIC revealed its new and improved e-government strategy during the 6th edition of the Abu Dhabi e-Government Forum in June 2015. According to ADSIC, the strategy aims to rapidly enable the digital transformation of government services and shared ICT infrastructure through a road map that will be followed in coming years in order to fully reach smart government through a unified e-gateway. Mainly focusing on the various aspects of world-class m-government services, the roadmap also outlines how the partner government entities will play a visible role in adopting and applying the new strategy.

During the e-government forum ADSIC also announced a host of new initiatives such as Abu Dhabi Government Cloud, which seeks to reduce the government’s IT spent, catalyse innovation and increase efficiency and productivity. Meanwhile, the new mobile government strategy will develop integrated digital services by augmenting the planning capabilities and creating a robust m-service data management strategy.

Smart Schemes:

With a total of 423 smart services available through 44 apps by 30 state entities, ADSIC offers a broad spectrum of services as part of its continued efforts to set new ICT standards and support the emirate’s e-government in boosting overall government performance and upgrading the services presented to the public.

ADSIC’s City Guard encourages the public to adopt smart services and communicate with the Abu Dhabi government entities via a smart phone application that refers the reported incidents to the Abu Dhabi Government Contact Centre, connecting over 50 government entities.

ADSIC’s other initiatives include the No Objection Certificate Programme for utilities and infrastructure and the Abu Dhabi Spatial Data Infrastructure Programme, which enables the sharing of geospatial data among government agencies in various sectors, as well as e-citizen, a training programme targeting those Abu Dhabi residents with extremely limited IT knowledge.

The smart government approach brings together multiple and often diverse areas of technological innovation and government capacity-building within the emirate’s ecosystem.

Saeed Abdullah bin Mutlaq Al Ghafli, director general of the Emirates Identity Authority (EIDA), told OBG, “Over the last several years there has been an emphasis placed on driving innovation to make it easier for citizens to interact with all government services and create a trusted and secure smart government environment.”

The wide, smart government framework now encompasses all sectors, as the evolution to smart government moves forward. The focus now is on redefining the idea of smart government to include new initiatives, smart channels and mobile integrated government, and in particular cloud computing as well as data collection and analysis.

Emirates ID:

As a federal, independent authority, established in 2004, EIDA is responsible for establishing, managing and authenticating the UAE’s Population Register and Identity Card programme. EIDA’s 2014-16 strategy set its sights on consolidating efforts into an integrated personal identity management system that contributes to the transformation of the government and the economy and promotes security and global competitiveness of the UAE.

“The Emirates ID management system is one of the most important initiatives for the country because it will be the backbone for citizens interacting with the public sector, as well as some private sector activities such as banking, health care and telecoms,” Al Ghafli told OBG.

EIDA’s progress and benefits to public service were recognised by the UN in 2015 when it received the UN’s Public Service Award for promoting whole-of-government approaches in the information age. In particular the award recognised the National Validation Gateway (VG), which enables governments, banks, organisations and individuals to make use of the Emirates ID card online. The card, which comes with an embedded digital certificate, is used for authentication and signing thus enhancing and securing services online. Online services for the Emirates ID from the VG include card verification, biometric verification of the cardholder with fingerprints and a digital signing service with a timestamp.

The benefits and utility of the VG are now growing. This has led to new awareness of the opportunities it presents for the private sector, which is taking advantage of the VG in greater numbers. Following the successful model developed with a UAE bank in 2015, more banks were in the pipeline as of late 2015, according to Al Ghafli.

Examples of the benefits of use include using the VG to open accounts in minutes with automatic form filling in English and Arabic. The reductions in time and cost, including through requiring less human resources, is catching private sector attention, Al Ghafli says. In addition, pharmacies are also using the ID card to authenticate customers and their prescriptions, and telecom companies use the card for selling SIM cards at kiosks, with benefits of reduced time to the customer and lower costs for the companies. “There is no limit to the number of expanded applications of the Emirates ID card,” Al Ghafli told OBG. “It is simply a matter of educating the public and private sector and encouraging them to take advantage of the applications of the ID card in developing the services they offer to their customers.”

Internet Of Things: 

In September 2015 testing was successfully carried out by du on a new breed of sensor-friendly network as part of its push to build a smart city ecosystem in the UAE. Seen as cost-effective and being the first true internet of things (IoT) network in the Middle East, according to the company, the system will use data-sharing through a network of sensors to enable more efficient use of energy and other resources. According to du, it will revolutionise cities. Set to come on-stream first in Dubai in the first quarter of 2016, du is expecting to complete the countrywide project by the end of 2016.

Etisalat announced in July 2015 that it would introduce what it calls the region’s first IoT application development and device management platform. Partnering with Oberthur Technologies and ThingWorx for the building and management of the platform, it will focus on IoT solutions for the emerging machine-to-machine market.

In late 2015 du, together with Huawei, launched a 400G optical transport network to manage large amounts of data at its Khazna Data Centre. In 2013 du bought a 10% stake in the Khazna Data Centre, which is owned by Mubadala Development Company, the Abu Dhabi-based investment and development company, and increased its share to 26% in 2015. In a release about the new network, du said it was the first of its kind in the Middle East and Africa, with the ability to have “ultra-broadband” capability. The network will benefit du as a service provider, bringing a number of advantages, such as higher capacity, scalability, faster time to market and lower cost per bit, while the firm’s customers will receive higher speeds and performance.

Cloud Computing:

The cloud services sector and cloud computing are on track for significant growth in the UAE, fuelled by growing smartphone and broadband penetration. According to the fourth Cisco Global Cloud Index (2013-18), the Middle East and Africa will record the world’s highest cloud traffic growth rate from 2013 to 2018.

A particularly significant step in this regard is the move by Mubadala Development Company, which signed a joint venture agreement with IBM Watson to bring the Watson cloud-based cognitive computing ecosystem to the emirate through a newly established company Cognit. The joint effort will see the powerful cloud-based tool, which is able to catch new patterns and insights from data, deployed to the areas of health care, banking, retail, education and finance. “Watson is a genuine quantum leap – ground-breaking technology that really moves the equation significantly forward in terms of technology,” Mounir Barakat, executive director of ICT at Mubadala Development Company, told OBG. The company sees the area of health care as a key area of impact.

Mubadala Development Company’s Injazat Data Systems is a major player in the growing cloud computing services sector, with a recent partnership with SAP to help further drive innovation in the UAE’s ICT sector. A subsidiary of Emirates Defence Industries Company, Bayanat Mapping and Surveying Services is geo-spatial services company launched in 2008 through a partnership with the UAE Armed Forces Military Survey Department. Defined as a commercial spin-off of the UAE Armed Forces’ Military Survey Department, it specialises in data acquisition, analysis, geospatial services, data visualisation and cartography.

High Ambitions: 

A subsidiary of Mubadala Development Company, Al Yah Satellite Communications Company (Yahsat), is a provider of multipurpose satellite solutions for use by the government and commercial purposes, with broadband, broadcast, military and communications capability. As of 2015 the company’s Yahclick satellite broadband service is available in 12 markets, seven of those in sub-Saharan Africa. The company’s core growth markets have been Nigeria, Angola and South Africa, but with its Al Yah 3 satellite – expected to be launched in the first quarter of 2017 – the firm is looking to expand its broadband services in Brazil and Africa.

“The proliferation of broadband satellite solutions, including access to mobile backhaul for telcos and ISPs development, is largely dependent on efficient and effective distribution channels,” Masood Sharif Mahmood, the CEO of Yahsat, told OBG. “For Yahsat this means going directly to the market or forming strategic partnerships with local companies. Underpenetrated regions such as Africa are becoming increasingly more relevant markets for operators. Thus, Yahsat is looking to increase capacity and are planning to launch an additional satellite in 2017 in order to bring greater connectivity to the region.”

The critical design review for Yahsat’s Al Yah 3 satellite was completed in August 2015, indicating that all specifications and requirements had been captured into the overall final design of the satellite and that the satellite was on schedule.

Yahsat and Orbital ATK, together with the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, announced in August 2015 that approval had been received from the Commission for Academic Accreditation to incorporate a space systems and technology concentration into seven of its master of science degree programmes, enabling the launch of Masdar Institute’s academic programme on Space Systems and Technology (see Education chapter).

“Collaboration between educational institutions and private organisations is critical in advancing the UAE’s objective of becoming an innovation and technology hub for the region,” said Mahmood. “Our partnership with the Masdar Institute in the creation of a master’s degree in space systems and technology will serve as the foundation for developing the capability of Emirati students and ensure the sustainability of high-tech industries such as the satellite, aerospace and defence sectors.”

The company’s trajectory reaches beyond broadcasting and broadband. According to Mahmood, the UAE recognised some time ago that the development of an independent satellite communications network would be critical in terms of its national security. “Given increased regional volatility, the integral role of SATCOM capabilities has never been more vital than it is today,” he said.

Yahsat’s commercial and military services are creating knowledge transfer and capacity for the UAE’s longer-term vision of an unmanned mission to Mars. Currently planned for 2021 (launching in 2020), it will be a nine-month, 37.5m-mile trip. The Mars probe, called Hope Probe, will collect data on the climate and atmosphere on Mars, with the data then to be analysed in the UAE and made available for use by scientists.

Ankabut: 

One company applying the emirate’s high-quality ICT infrastructure is UAE Advanced Network for Research and Education (Ankabut), which grew out of a 2006 memorandum of understanding between Khalifa University, in partnership with the Institute of Applied Technology, UAE University, Zayed University and Higher Colleges of Technology to provide high-capacity, high-speed broadband connectivity between educational, research and eligible non-profit organisations in the UAE. It promotes a knowledge-based economy through raising research capacity and export ideas and products. Ankabut offers its 24 UAE members international connectivity of 155.52 Mbps.

Security:

In 2014 the federal-level National Electronic Security Authority (NESA) declared that cybersecurity was one of the greatest challenges to face nations in the 21st century, for economic and national security concerns alike. Established in 2012, the authority introduced new standards and policy in 2014 to boost resilience of the nation’s ICT infrastructure. At the national level, the UAE was the second most attacked Middle East country online in 2014, according to a survey conducted by software provider and cybersecurity company Kaspersky Lab together with B2B International. The government is currently taking steps to raise awareness of scams and ways to protect users, especially the young, against online threats. Mubadala Development Company’s Barakat has seen a dramatic difference in emphasis on cybersecurity in the UAE, especially in terms of government attention to the matter. NESA announced in 2014 its National Information Assurance Framework, a strategy for protecting the nation’s ICT infrastructure as well as placing a firm spotlight on citizen protection and awareness.

As Abu Dhabi’s smart government ecosystem evolves further, a prime example of crossover use of technology, social media and government policy is the SAWAB Centre, a joint initiative between the UAE federal government and the US government in their partnership to counter radicalisation and the propaganda and recruitment efforts of the extremist Daesh group, also known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Translated as “doing the right thing” in Arabic, the initiative uses social media and other online resources to provide a platform for promoting moderate views and “put things in the right perspective” vis-à-vis the “noise of extremists”, the initiative states.

Outlook:

ICT continues to play a pivotal role in Abu Dhabi’s economic diversification, and is critical to the evolution of its smart government framework. Innovation in the coming years looks likely to be characterised by government-led initiatives and crucial participation from the private and public sectors alike. Cloud computing and data storage are among the likely areas of particular growth, with domestic companies providing robust offerings to enable demanding ICT use among businesses and government.

While cybersecurity remains a challenge, federal government initiatives and local, emirate-level collaboration together with public awareness building can help offset critical threats.

With strong local demand and regional growth in ICT and related services, Abu Dhabi is well positioned to remain a key player in the UAE and the Gulf region’s ICT investment landscape.

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Cover of The Report: Abu Dhabi 2016

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