In the mature telecommunications markets of North America and Europe, internet services generally grew out of existing telephone networks. During the 1990s, early adopters around the world can still recall the odd noises of their 56-K dial-up modems. As technologies developed, operators used copper phone, cable television and other fixed infrastructure to deliver high-speed broadband services in the home and office. It was only in the latter part of the 2000s that internet access on mobile phones became commonplace.
In Oman, however, a number of factors led to a slightly different development trajectory. Unlike those in North America and Europe, internet service providers in the sultanate did not have extensive pre-existing infrastructure they could piggy-back on. The mountains and deserts spreading across over 300,000 sq km of terrain, meanwhile, reduced the commercial viability of building a network from scratch.
As a result, fixed penetration has hovered at relatively low rates. Oman had slightly less than two fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in 2011, according to the UN International Telecommunications Union (ITU), giving the country the second-lowest rate in the GCC. Still, internet use in the sultanate has soared in recent years. Between 2008 and 2011, the percentage of individuals using the internet rose from under 20% to nearly 70%. Rather than use the copper wires of a telephone network or the coaxial wires of a cable television network, telecoms providers have focused on using mobile services to provide high-speed internet.
The user base was certainly there. Despite having one of the lowest fixed-broadband subscription rates in the GCC, Oman had the second-highest rate of mobile subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, clocking in at over 160. With the introduction of fourth generation long term evolution (4G LTE) under way, mobile broadband speeds and connectivity are set for a major boost.
The Next Generation
4G LTE is the latest wireless communication and data medium for mobile phones. It has built on its forebear, the aptly named third generation (3G) technology that first went online in the early 2000s. LTE offers users a major speed upgrade, with initial iterations having sustained data rates from 100-1000 Megabytes per second (Mbps), according to the UN International Telecommunications Union’s definition. These compare with the speeds of 3G, which are as high as 21 Mbps, according to incumbent operator Omantel. In addition to increasing speeds, 4G LTE technology is also capable of transmitting high definition voice, video and other media services.
As of October 2012 there were 347 telecoms operators in 104 countries committed to commercial LTE networks or working on studies and network tests, according to the UK-based Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA). By the end of 2012, there will be 152 LTE networks operating in 65 countries, the GSA estimates. In the GCC, LTE rollouts began in September 2011, when Saudi Telecom Company (STC), Mobily and Zain, all based in Saudi Arabia, launched their services, along with the UAE’s Etisalat. Viva Kuwait and Viva Bahrain followed with LTE launches in December 2011 and January 2012, respectively.
Oman Telecommunications (Omantel), the incumbent operator, announced the launch of its 4G LTE network on July 16, 2012. Upon its launch, the operator advertised data rates of up to 100 Mbps. Sweden-based Ericsson and China-based Huawei signed agreements with Omantel to roll out the network in May 2012. Areas around the country were selected for initial connectivity based on their existing data traffic, Omantel CEO Amer Awadh Al Rawas, said in the announcement. The new network was introduced for data only, which can be utilised through both mobile and stationary modems.
“[A]s technology develops, we will see more devices and handsets that support 3.5G and 4G LTE and eventually data and voice,” Al Rawas said.
Nawras, the country’s second mobile operator, signed an agreement with Huawei in June 2012 to launch its own 4G LTE network. Major areas in the Muscat governorate are set for 4G LTE connections by the end of 2012. By June 2013 all major cities in the sultanate will have connections, according to the company. In the same agreement, Nawras also hired the China-based networking and telecommunications firm to upgrade its 3G network to the 3G+, or high speed downlink packet access (HSDPA) standard, which facilitates higher data transfers at faster rates. About 30% of network sites are set to be upgraded by the end of 2012. Over time, the company aims to increase its 3G+ population coverage from 53% to 97% by 2015. This development is set to improve connections for users of devices that are not compatible with 4G LTE.
Broadening The Spectrum
Spectrum allocation – the process of assigning radio frequencies for use by telecoms operators – is a crucial part of building up wireless networks. Different spectrums offer different benefits. Oman’s two operators, Nawras and Omantel, approached the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) in December 2011 about the possibility of releasing lower frequencies for commercial network use. “Lower frequencies are more hardy. They travel farther and go inside buildings more easily,” Ross Cormack, the CEO of Nawras, told Reuters that December. “You don’t mind if you’re in Hong Kong or a place where you’ve got a huge number of people in a tiny area because you will have a lot of base stations anyway, but in our country you have a challenge. You have to build more base stations for in-building coverage. With lower frequencies, you can get to more people with just one base station.” Because of their advantages, lower frequencies are often reserved for government and military use. In Oman as well, these spectrum ranges were off-limits to commercial communications providers.
In March 2012, however, the Omani Transport and Communications Ministry announced that OR50m ($130.3m) would be spent on opening spectrum, including the 1800-MHz band, to the country’s telecoms providers. The move was welcomed by both Nawras and Omantel as a major step forward toward developing Oman’s mobile telecommunications infrastructure.
Indeed, spectrum management can be crucial in network roll-out, allowing coverage to spread over a wider area faster. Spectrum is also important for mobile devices. Some products are designed to work within a fixed range of frequencies. The third generation of Apple’s iPad, for example, supports 4G LTE connections only over 700 and 2100 MHz frequencies, which are more common in North America. For the GCC’s early adopters of 4G LTE, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, these frequency constraints have meant that this model of the tablet could not utilise the higher data rates offered by a 4G network.
Although Oman’s operators are also on an incompatible frequency for the third generation of the iPad, they are in good company with the opening of the 1800 MHz frequency. As of September 2012, one-third of all commercial LTE networks were running on the frequency, according to Netherlands-based Telecompaper. Areas using the band range include major markets such as Germany, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. Running 4G LTE services on a more broadly used frequency range could increase the chances of a given device being compatible on the network.
In September 2012, Apple announced spectrum compatibility for the iPhone 5, which includes 1800 MHz. The Cupertino, California-based technology company’s iPhone products held a 16.9% market share of the global smartphone market in the second quarter of 2012, according to the US-based Information Data Corporation (IDC). Samsung, the largest producer of mobile phones running Google’s Android operating system, also produces several phones in its popular Galaxy line capable of utilising 4G LTE on 1800 MHz. Samsung held a 32.6% share of the global smartphone market in the second quarter of 2012, according to the IDC.
In Oman, providers are set to use different frequency ranges for the time being. Omantel’s 4G services currently run on the 2300-MHz frequency, another popular range around the world, with presence in large markets like the US, India and China. Nawras is set to use the newly opened 1800 MHz frequency. For consumers, the current state of affairs could be a boon, as two frequency bands could mean a larger selection of mobile devices compatible with Omani networks.
As Omantel continues to expand its 4G LTE network and Nawras moves to roll out its own, the Omani telecommunications market stands to gain. Higher web speeds are likely to encourage more internet use, as services will be more convenient to access. As smartphones become more common and connectivity strengthens, demand for mobile apps and other services could increase as well. A larger pool of potential customers could, in turn, help spur the creation of locally developed apps, boosting the government’s drive for technology-oriented entrepreneurship.
Indeed, the advent of fourth generation mobile broadband could unlock a multitude of benefits for Omanis across various economic sectors. With the government and service providers working together to ensure a smooth roll-out, mobile broadband coverage and connectivity are only set to expand in the coming years.