Gulf operators hope demand for 4G services to pick up soon

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Several Gulf mobile operators have complained that uptake of 4G internet in the region has been “slow” despite spending millions of dollars on installing, updating and promoting faster mobile networks.

Zain, Saudi Arabia’s leading mobile services provider, is one of several regional operators that launched its 4G mobile network. According to Hisham Mustafa Allam, chief technical officer at Zain Group, said there had been “a couple of thousand” of subscribers to its 4G service in Saudi Arabia, which was launched last year.

“We had a slow start. But I think it’s starting to pick up,” he said adding that Zain Group had also tested LTE, or Long Term Evolution, networks in Kuwait and Bahrain. He also expressed hopes of having “hundreds of thousands” of 4G subscribers within a year.

Telecom experts believe popularity of 4G network depends on the arrival of more 4G-compatible phones and tablets in the Middle East.

The new networks say 4G connections offer mobile-data speeds that are twice the speed of best possible connection offered by 3G.

Many industry experts lament the fact that the new Apple iPad, one of the highly anticipated 4G devices of the year, is not compatible with local high-speed networks due to frequency issues.

The UAE’s Etisalat launched its 4G network last year. The operator’s network uses LTE, which is branded as 4G for marketing purposes.

Saeed Abdulla Al Zarouni, the senior vice president for mobile networks at Etisalat, said access to 4G services via USB dongles meant demand was limited. “With the dongle-only, the take-up is a little slow,” he said while adding that the arrival of new 4G devices would help boost demand.

“I think by the third or fourth quarter of this year, the LTE take-up will be much more aggressive. We are testing some Samsung tablets that will be ready in the market soon. So the customer will have more options,” he added.

Some telecoms experts are also blaming the slow global response toward 4G services.

According to Informa, there are just 15 million LTE subscribers worldwide, more than half of whom are subscribed to the US operator Verizon Wireless.

“Currently there are only relatively few LTE smartphones and tablets available. But that is likely to change over the coming few months and certainly in the year or so ahead,” Matthew Reed, a senior analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media, said.

“It will take several years for LTE to really become a mass-market technology, both in this region and globally,” he added.

Erik Ekudden, the vice president and head of group technology strategies at Ericsson, also forecasted “tremendous spike” in demand for 4G in the Middle East, while admitting it is still early to expect any sea change.

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