Abu Dhabi’s ICT sector saw further growth in 2019, driven by major public investment in the digitisation of services for residents and businesses. The emirate and the wider UAE continue to lead the way regionally in rolling out 5G technology, with the UAE’s two national telecoms companies making significant investments in network expansion and upgrades. The emirate is also consolidating its position as a leading centre for research and development (R&D) in areas including artificial intelligence (AI), cybersecurity and cloud services, and the emerging start-up sector is playing an active role. Recently, the emirate’s digital drive was accelerated by the global outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020, which caused businesses, educational institutions and government entities to offer remote services after travel restrictions were imposed. “One positive impact of the crisis is the extent to which Abu Dhabi has pushed ahead with innovation and integrating new technologies into the economy,” John Brash, CEO and founder of global branding agency Brash Brands, told OBG. “This has been seen in many areas including digital government, distance learning and e-commerce.”
Structure & Oversight
The industry is managed at the national level by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), which was established by Decree No. 3 of 2003, otherwise known as the Telecom Law. The TRA is officially mandated to act as the sector’s chief legal and policy-making body, and as a facilitator for other national-level entities in the field of smart transformation.
Among its roles, the TRA is responsible for ensuring telecoms service provision on a nationwide level; encouraging ICT uptake; promoting the adoption of transformative technologies; issuing licences to providers; promoting training and development; overseeing spectrum allocation and infrastructure-sharing arrangements; and helping to review mobile tariffs to ensure competitive pricing. The TRA is also responsible for maintaining digital infrastructure across the country and its connections with local telecoms networks in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
At an emirate level, the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 is the guiding policy document for the coming decade, and lays out targets for investment in and adoption of new ICT infrastructure.
Developing a thriving ICT business ecosystem is a key component of the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, and the TRA and emirate-level bodies have established funds to boost the UAE and Abu Dhabi’s digital transformation. The TRA also supports sector development on a national level through its ICT Fund, which was launched in 2007 by to jumpstart the UAE’s digital transformation.
Etisalat and Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company – known commercially as du – are the UAE’s two leading telecoms companies, and both contribute 1% of their annual net profits to finance the ICT Fund’s operations. In addition, the two companies are significant contributors to the revenue of the national government, paying 30% royalties on their profits. On an emirate level, Mubadala Investment Company, a strategic investment firm owned by the Abu Dhabi government, also plays a key role in supporting the local ICT sector.
Performance & Size
TRA data for 2019 reflects mixed performance across ICT services. As of December 2019 mobile subscriptions across the UAE had dipped to around 18.3m, down from 19.5m at the same time in 2018. Mobile subscription rates also fell to 204.3 per 100 inhabitants, down from 219.8, though they continue to rank among the highest in the world. Of the subscriptions in December 2019, 14.7m were pre-paid plans, while the remaining 3.6m were post-paid. Smartphone penetration in the UAE also remains among the highest in the world, ranking behind only Singapore. At the end of 2018 smartphones accounted for over 85% of internet connections in the country, according to industry figures. The telecoms operators du and Etisalat rely heavily on mobile service revenue, which accounted for 85% of total income in 2018. According to the TRA, fixed-line subscriptions, for their part, rose slightly, to over 2.3m as of December 2019, up 10,087 subscriptions from a year earlier, while the number per 100 inhabitants held steady at around 26.2. Broadband internet subscriptions fell marginally to 3.01m in August 2019, down 35,344 on the previous year, while the number of subscriptions per 100 inhabitants declined from 34.5 to 33.8.
Etisalat and du are the two leading service providers in the UAE’s telecoms market. Etisalat, established in Abu Dhabi in 1976, is the largest telecoms operator in the country, as well as one of the largest corporations in both the UAE and the GCC. The UAE federal government owns 60% of the firm, while the other 40% is publicly traded on the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange (ADX). Founded in Dubai in 2005, du has grown to become the key competitor of Etisalat in the domestic market. As of early 2020 the majority of shares of du were held by Emirates Investment Authority, Mubadala Investment Company and Emirates International Communications, with stakes of 50.1%, 10.1% and 19.7%, respectively. The remaining 20.1% was publicly traded on the Dubai Financial Market. A government decision in 2015 loosened ownership eligibility restrictions for shareholders and permitted additional entities, such as local institutions, foreign investors and expatriates, to purchase up to half of its ADX value – or 20% of the firm. As of February 2020 Etisalat had 143m subscribers across 15 countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and a market capitalisation of Dh140m ($38.1bn). The UAE continues to be Etisalat’s largest market, comprising around 60% of its global revenue and 49% of capital expenditure (capex).
In the UAE, Etisalat had a total of 12.6m customers as of the end of 2019, largely unchanged from the previous year. While its mobile subscriber base increased by 1% to 10.8m, pre-paid subscriptions were down 1% – a trend attributed to the impact of value-added tax, which was introduced at the beginning of 2018. However, this decline was offset by strong growth in the post-paid segment, which grew by 8% in 2019, due to new product offerings and the successful migration of customers from the pre-paid to post-paid segment. The company’s broadband segment rose by 1% to reach a total of 1.2m subscribers. Revenue in the UAE remained relatively stable at Dh31.5bn ($8.57bn) in 2019, compared to Dh31.4bn ($8.54bn) in 2018.
Dubai-based du’s entry into the UAE telecoms market in 2005 ended Etisalat’s domestic monopoly and was followed by the investment of an estimated $5.4bn during the first decade after its launch. As of the close of 2019 du’s total revenue stood at Dh12.6bn ($3.4bn), though this marked a 6.3% decrease from Dh13.4bn ($3.6bn) in 2018. Nevertheless, new profits after royalty held relatively steady at Dh1.73bn ($471m) compared to Dh1.75bn ($476m) over the same period. This performance was driven by a decline in the mobile segment, with revenue falling from Dh8bn ($2.2bn) to Dh7bn ($1.8bn) between December 2018 and December 2019. This was, however, partially offset by a small rise in the fixed-line segment, where revenues rose from Dh2.3bn ($626m) to Dh2.5bn ($680m).
The UAE has some of the most robust mobile network coverage and download speeds both within the region and globally. A report published in May 2019 by OpenSignal, a mobile application that crowdsources user data to map wireless service coverage worldwide, ranked the UAE highly on several measures of ICT quality.
On 4G network availability – a measure of the proportion of time LTE services are available to users – the UAE’s score of 87.3% ranked it 22nd worldwide and third within the GCC. In terms of download speeds, the UAE came 33rd globally and third regionally, registering a median rate of 19.9 Mbps. According to the report, 4G was available 89% of the time on Etisalat’s network and 85.5% on that of du. Download speeds averaged 27.6 Mbps for Etisalat and 13.8 Mbps for du.
In March 2018 the TRA launched a Coverage Centre that will use remote, mobile testing units to constantly monitor the country’s mobile connectivity, with the goal of eventually guaranteeing uninterrupted coverage. The TRA is aiming to make improvements on wait times, download speeds and service quality that would increase network coverage to 96%, a figure that would exceed the international quality standard of 92% and trail only South Korea in OpenSignal’s accessibility rankings.
Currently, 5G technology is being gradually introduced across the UAE, after approval was granted to du and Etisalat by the TRA in December 2017. The focus of telecoms operators has therefore moved away from 4G to the next generation of mobile technology. The new systems should eventually offer download speeds of 20 Gbps to consumers, according to the standards defined by the International Telecommunications Union, which would be 50 times faster than existing 4G networks. These speeds would support the active introduction of emerging disruptive technologies, such as AI, driverless cars and the internet of things.
In May 2019 Etisalat launched limited 5G services in the country, becoming the first provider in the GCC region and fourth globally to offer this technology to consumers. This was soon followed by du, which launched limited coverage in June 2019. Current 5G coverage and download speeds in the UAE remain limited but are constantly expanding and improving. As of October 2019 du offered 5G coverage to around 8% of the population and was aiming to extend this to 15% by end of 2019.
In December 2019 the live 5G network had download speeds of 1.5 Gbps – 2.5 times faster than average 4G networks in the region. While Etisalat does not publicly disclose its connection speeds, it is planning to achieve nationwide 5G coverage by the end of 2020, while du is aiming for the end of 2022.
Since 2015 Etisalat and du have shared the costs of developing greenfield, fixed-network infrastructure across the UAE. This has allowed the companies to reduce their capex on infrastructure and focus on other strategic areas. Both Etisalat and du have significantly increased their capex as they look to expand 5G services throughout the country. Etisalat allocated approximately Dh4bn ($1.1bn) for infrastructure upgrades in 2019, with a focus on 5G services. To ensure full 5G coverage is available across the UAE, the telecoms operators are having to significantly increase the number of antennas and mini-cell towers, as 5G waves do not travel long distances like 4G waves. This means that a larger number of towers need to be installed to ensure reception. Etisalat set a target of building 1000 5G towers across the country as it targets full coverage by the end of 2020. Meanwhile, in 2019, du earmarked Dh1.5bn ($408.3m) for its own network expansion plans, an increase of 25% from 2018.
Network expansion and upgrades have provided multibillion-dollar business opportunities for foreign technology and mobile device manufacturers. Etisalat has contracted Chinese technology company Huawei and Swedish technology company Ericsson for its 5G network rollout, whereas du is working with Huawei and the Finnish tech giant Nokia. Huawei works with both of the UAE’s telecoms operators to offer various 5G solutions, including 5G wireless, 5G service-oriented core and a 5G-ready transport network to facilitate a smooth transition to 5G.
Meanwhile, Ericsson has been contracted to deploy a 5G radio network in the country, and Nokia is supporting du in the rollout of its 5G network through the provision of infrastructure. Nokia is also working with du to develop cloud-based 5G architecture, a technological innovation which is crucial for AI and virtual reality, among other applications.
While mobile subscriptions have dipped and revenue from this segment is under increased pressure from a rising number of pre-paid customers and growing data usage, broadband internet subscriptions continue to show steady growth. As of March 2019 the total number of broadband users in the UAE had reached 3m, a 5.5% year-on-year increase, according to the TRA. Broadband internet comprises a significant source of revenue for du and Etisalat. In 2018, for example, fixed-line services, which include broadband, brought in Dh2.3bn ($626.1m), or 17.5% of du’s total revenue, an 8.3% increase from 2017’s revenue of Dh2.2bn ($598.8m). While Etisalat does not disclose detailed performance by business segment, its 1.2m broadband subscriber base in the UAE likely brings in a similar percentage of revenue.
Both operators offer broadband internet as part of bundle packages which typically include telephone and television services. This unified billing has helped the firms increase their sales. In the past, both Etisalat and du invested heavily in shifting their customer base towards internet protocol television services, which transmit TV programmes over a private internet network that delivers a more consistent service. Etisalat offers triple-play services through its eLife plans, which include broadband, TV channels and fixed voice services to make free calls to UAE landlines. Similarly, du offers home packages with the same bundle of services.
As part of efforts to further digitise the emirate’s economy, Abu Dhabi has recognised the need to build user-friendly digital government platforms to facilitate both business activities and the provision of public services. In order to support this transition, the Abu Dhabi government established the Abu Dhabi Systems and Information Centre (ADSIC) in 2005 with a mandate to build a high-tech, user-centric digital government platform. Online public resources and information pages have evolved steadily since then, and in February 2018 the Abu Dhabi Systems and Smart Services Authority (ADSSSA) replaced ADSIC to oversee the launch of the local government’s unified service platform. ADSSSA was founded to work with other public agencies to build smart systems for government services. Since then, ADSSSA has launched the digital government platform TAMM, which aims to provide a unified front-end portal for all customers of Abu Dhabi government services.
The year 2019 saw some significant changes to the emirate’s digital government strategy. In May 2019 the government of the emirate established the Abu Dhabi Digital Authority (ADDA), which has since taken over the work of both ADSIC and ADSSSA. ADDA operates under an expanded mandate focused on government services and solutions, building ecosystems, data and applied intelligence, in addition to cybersecurity. As the authority was only established relatively recently, much of ADDA’s current work is focused on accelerating the implementation of the TAMM programme, and providing data management and analytics services. Launched in 2018 – alongside Abu Dhabi Government Entities (ADGE) – TAMM has already significantly streamlined government services and reduced waiting times. As of April 2020 approximately 300 government services are provided on the TAMM platform, through its online portal and mobile application. One of the primary objectives for ADDA in 2020 is to expand the coverage of TAMM to include and integrate all government services.
ADGE and TAMM have also led the development of end-to-end journeys. For example, the “Start Your Business” journey on the TAMM platform offers solutions to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The journey provides relevant information on permits and licences in one place and offers a one-stop e-licensing system. This allows SMEs to apply for the required licences remotely in one step, thereby streamlining a process that previously took eight steps and a physical visit to government offices. As of April 2020 over 15 similar journeys had been launched on the TAMM platform.
In addition to offering digital government services and solutions, ADDA is focused on building partnerships with the private sector to facilitate the emirate’s digital transformation through the use of AI and data management. The Data Management Programme (DMP) and AI Lab (AIL) are key initiatives in this regard (see analysis). The AIL also hosts a co-working space for the government and private sector businesses to work together to develop practical applications using AI.
Training Abu Dhabi government employees in AI technology is at the heart of this collaboration, and around 190 employees from selected government branches underwent training in 2019 alone. In practice, the knowledge and solutions developed at the AIL will be used to increase the efficiency of government services over the coming years.
For its part, DMP’s work is focused on using data to make better government decisions, as well as opening it up to the general public and academia. Currently, DMP is trialling five high-impact use cases for how to integrate data management across various government bodies. It aims to have a centralised data platform that will connect with private sector enterprises and start-ups to give them access to invaluable data from government operations.
Abu Dhabi’s satellite communications segment continues to grow and has put the emirate on the regional and global map for innovation. Al Yah Satellite Communications Company (Yahsat), a leading global satellite operator based in Abu Dhabi and wholly owned by Mubadala Investment Company, launched its first satellite in 2011, followed by two additional satellites in 2012 and 2018, with more planned over the coming years. The company’s satellites are used for broadband, broadcast, government and defence communications across the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Central and South-west Asia.
In 2018 Yahsat acquired Thuraya – a mobile satellite services operator based in the UAE – which operated two satellites of its own. Yahsat’s five satellites now cover over 190 countries, and the combined expertise and technology of these two firms are currently driving innovation in satellite communications technology worldwide. The company’s role in connecting communities has become ever more critical during the Covid-19 pandemic. In April 2020 Yahsat announced a collaboration with the UAE’s Ministry of Education (MoE) to extend the remote schooling programme to areas lacking internet connectivity. Under the scheme, students are able to use the company’s free satellite broadband to access e-learning resources from the MoE.
Abu Dhabi is also home to several tech companies which are leading global innovation, notably in cybersecurity. Cloud services is another area generating dynamism and growth in the emirate. However, barriers to the uptake of these products remain and further work is required to successfully boost the segment. “Cloud computing offers unprecedented potential to enterprises across all market segments and our region is well served by global players such as Microsoft, who have established their first regional data centre in the UAE,” Feras Al Jabi, senior vice-president of the Abu Dhabi-based cloud and digital services provider Digital Okta, told OBG. “Transformational digital technologies such as AI, machine learning and big data can only deliver optimal results when powered by cloud computing capabilities. Recognising this, many enterprises in the UAE have taken steps towards harnessing cloud platforms to fuel business growth.”
As the emirate eases its reliance on hydrocarbons and continues to pursue its economic diversification strategy, the Abu Dhabi government has increasingly allocated funding to boost the local tech ecosystem. The year 2019 saw major developments for the emirate’s tech start-up industry with the launch of the Dh1bn ($272.2m) Hub71, an ICT cluster that brings together start-ups, innovators, global companies and investors.
Hub71 is a collaboration between government bodies such as Mubadala Investment Company, and major private sector players, including Microsoft and Japan’s tech-focused SoftBank. Funding for the programme comes from the Abu Dhabi government-backed R&D initiative Ghadan 21. Hub71 funds start-ups and supports them with housing, office space and health insurance, among other incentives. Seed-stage start-ups with between two and five employees, and between $100,000 and $500,000 in capital, are entitled to 100% subsidies for two years, while emerging-stage start-ups with up to 25 employees, or $500,000 or more in raised capital, are entitled to 50% subsidies for three years.
In addition, these start-ups are granted licences at very low costs through Abu Dhabi Global Market, a financial and administrative free zone based on Al Maryah Island, where Hub71 is also located. Over the three years to 2022 Hub71 is aiming to attract more than 100 start-ups in different sectors, including transportation and autonomous driving, life sciences, cybersecurity, financial services, and food systems and supply chains, among others. The cluster has already attracted interest from global tech and start-up companies. In February 2020 WeWork, the US commercial real estate firm that provides shared workspaces for start-ups, opened its first UAE location at Hub71.
Abu Dhabi’s government continues to take a leading role in driving the growth of the emirate’s ICT sector. E-governance initiatives are streamlining business operations and public services, while funding and other incentives are underpinning the emergence of a vibrant start-up environment.
The coming years are expected to see the ongoing expansion of the sector, supported in particular by the rollout of AI and cloud services across businesses and the government. These developments are not only expected to contribute to overall growth and support economic diversification, but also positively impact job creation, with cloud services alone forecast to generate 55,000 new jobs in the UAE by 2022.
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