3G technology has been present commercially for more than three-and-a-half years, and as operators' high-speed networks become an integral part of their transport networks, it appears 3G is being utilised as a capacity booster for voice services rather than a carrier of mobile data content.
It was telling how last month Egyptian market leader Mobinil u-turned and agreed to acquire a 3G licence, having originally shunned the idea, deeming access to the spectrum to be too expensive.
Incumbent Egyptian mobile operators Vodafone and Mobinil were offered 3G licences for a figure amounting to 20% of the amount bid by new entrant Etisalat for its combined 2G/3G licence. Etisalat ultimately pledged US$2.9 billion for its licence, requiring the incumbents to stump up in the region of US$580 million each, which Mobinil initially stated was too high and deemed not to be central to its ongoing development.
Mobinil's Alex Shalaby has since reconsidered, stating the strong growth in subscribers this year has led to the operator outgrowing its allocated 2G spectrum sooner than had previously been expected. 3G spectrum will thus act as a capacity boost, a recurring theme with respect to a number of Middle East operators' outlook for the technology.
In January, Qtel CEO Nasser Marafih told CommsMEA that the operator's 3G network was an asset that he believed would drive much value creation in Qatar's telecoms sector.
We came along as part of the second wave of operators in the region to launch 3G, which has given us extra capacity for voice as well as for value added services.
"We came to market with a unique launch strategy for 3G," explained Sheikh Fahad Bin Jassin Al-Thani Al-Thani, Qtel's executive director of wireless services. "We came along as part of the second wave of operators in the region to launch 3G, which has given us extra capacity for voice as well as for value added services," he added.
As opposed to making access to 3G a niche proposition, Qtel has been working hard to develop it as a mass market offering, having given its subscriber base access to the 3G network without even having to change their SIM cards. "There was no need for USIM cards. All a subscriber required was a 3G handset, and they could become a 3G subscriber," Al-Thani stated.
The positive effect of this 3G strategy is self-evident. Qtel was reported to operate the most loaded 3G network in the world on a per-subscriber basis even ahead of the beginning of the Asian Games held in Doha in December 2006. As much as 25% of the operator's total traffic was trafficking over its 3G network, a figure unheard of even in parts of the world where 3G was introduced many years ahead of places such as Qatar.
In Kuwait, market leader MTC announced the deployment of its nationwide 3G mobile broadband network in January.
The network, which is High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) enabled, was a part of a three-year multi-million dollar managed optimisation services agreement between Motorola and MTC-Kuwait to upgrade the Kuwaiti mobile operator's network.
"Enhanced speed, quality and variety are what our mobile-centric subscriber base is looking for in Kuwait when it comes to broadband services. The high performance network solution will enable MTC to provide customers with a compelling portfolio of services such as video conferencing, which is steadily gaining popularity here in the Middle East," said Barrak Al Sabeeh, general manager of MTC-Kuwait.
According to Al Sabeeh, the new network would enable MTC-Kuwait to address new opportunities for multimedia services, expanding capacity, availability and broadband capabilities to support more voice and data transmission in the country.
Given the strides that Kuwait rival Wataniya has taken in developing the technical specification of its network, it is no wonder that MTC Kuwait - the pioneer of 3G in the Gulf - has also been aggressively improving the capabilities of its own network.
Kuwait's population may only stand at 2.5 million, but the country's two mobile operators have approached the development of the market as if it were 10 times that size.
One of the major focuses for Wataniya has been customer service, emphasised through its campaign known as the ‘Red Carpet' policy. With this strategy, the operator is bidding to provide a level of service and customer satisfaction second to none in the region. Based around a state-of-the-art call centre, Wataniya customers - both business and personal - are guaranteed 24/7 access to support and services.
In 2005 Wataniya entered a deal worth US$125 million with Nokia for the implementation of advanced technologies to enhance the operator's network. Included in the deal was Nokia's High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) solution, a software upgrade to the WCDMA network, permitting data speeds of up to 2Mbps in the first phase. Nokia's end-to-end offering can enable advanced services such as push to talk, video calls and video sharing.
The deal with Nokia was upgraded in October 2006, with the supplier awarded a contract to expand its HSDPA radio and core network, increasing its capacity and extending the network coverage to new areas.
In addition to the HSDPA radio network, Nokia provided Wataniya with a core network upgrade, including packet core equipment and the Nokia MSC Server mobile softswitch; as well as a range of services, including network planning, consulting, system integration, implementation, pre-launch optimisation, maintenance, and care services. Deliveries for the contract have already begun.
Wataniya Telecom CEO and general manager Harri Koponen arrived in Kuwait in the second half of 2004, and immediately began a radical transformation of Wataniya's network in Kuwait. Siemens had, up until then, been the main infrastructure supplier, but this network was subsequently ripped out and Wataniya brought on board Nokia and Ericsson as its equipment partners.
October 2006 also saw Wataniya enhance its partnership with Ericsson, with the Swedish supplier signing on to provide radio equipment and implementation services for the 3G/HSDPA network, enabling the operator to introduce a new generation of mobile broadband services including high speed internet access.
The HSDPA solution from Ericsson enables peak download speeds of up to 14.4 Mbps once end-user terminals that support such speeds are available. Users will, on average, be able to download faster than a normal 3G connection using existing PC cards, and up to 20 times faster than with a GSM/GPRS connection.
Wataniya is hoping that its infrastructure investments will propel it forward as Kuwait's premier provider of broadband internet connectivity. The current sole fixed-line and broadband provider in Kuwait is the Ministry for Communications, which has been slow to react to demands for increasing bandwidth, often limiting supply.
Services that have already been launched by Wataniya include a comprehensive business suite that Timo Everi; the now-departed director of marketing, said had not been seen in Kuwait before. "There was no real corporate offering. MTC offered discounts, but this was not a corporate offering." Among Wataniya's ‘Tools for Business' Mobility Service portfolio, are services including W-mail (mobile email access), W-connect (mobile PBX) and W-net (mobile internet access via a data card), which were launched through consecutive campaigns last year. Also available is Push to Talk, which Wataniya is hoping will attract the attention of the mobile workforce users, as well as students and families.
In the UAE, infrastructure provider Huawei has announced it has completed the deployment of a HSPA network for Etisalat. The network, which the Chinese equipment vendor claims is the largest HSPA network in the Middle East and North Africa region, covers 97% of the populated areas in the UAE.
The HSPA project is the latest stage in a collaboration dating back several years between the two firms. Huawei built Etisalat's original 3G network in 2003 and was then contracted by the operator three years later to expand the 3G infrastructure as well as upgrade the network to HSPA.
The solution from Huawei incorporates advanced IP-based Radio Access Network that supports higher data throughput while reducing transmission costs.
Huawei has also supplied transmission and data communication equipment for Etisalat's operations in Egypt, as well as 2G/3G solutions and GSM network infrastructure for its subsidiaries in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Enhanced speed, quality and variety are what our mobile-centric subscriber base is looking for in Kuwait when it comes to broadband services.
Etisalat in Egypt chose to launch its mobile services with coverage and technology far beyond what was required in its operating licence. According to the operator's chief technical officer Haitham AbdulRazak, this was in keeping with Etisalat technology-leadership and desire to delight the customer.
According to its licence agreement, Etisalat was required to ensure coverage to Egypt's five major commercial and tourist cities, including Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Sharm el-Sheikh, but the new entrant launched with coverage of in excess of 35 major cities and towns across the country.
"When you come as a third entrant you should at least have acceptable coverage, not to provide a service that is less than what subscribers are already receiving," stated AbdulRazak. "That's the base."
At the time of launch, Etisalat had deployed no less than 760 base stations, many of them 3G-capable, reflecting a rollout period of just six months. By the end of the year AbdulRazak expects the number of base stations to have swelled to 2,500 as Etisalat looks to extend coverage further and consolidate coverage in the areas in which it already offers services.
Launching with a 3.5G HSPA network from day one was a key differentiator for Etisalat in Egypt, as neither of the two operators operate 3G at the current time. AbdulRazak sees vast potential in the realm of 3G and 3.5G services, and even in this area, the operator is looking to deliver beyond subscriber expectations in terms of both coverage and accessibility as well as the suite of services on offer.
"We are also launching with 3.5G from day one. We are only committed to offer 3G coverage of 10% of Cairo, and 10% of Alexandria," AbdulRazak explained. "However we are launching with huge 3G coverage, encompassing more than 50% of Cairo and Alexandria, as well as coverage of cities such as Luxor, Aswan, and Sharm el-Sheikh," he added.
The network is based completely on Release 4 architecture, which is ready to evolve to all-IP in all of its network nodes. Complete Softswitch technology is incorporated, which is ready to migrate to Release 5, and ensure the operator is at the forefront of content and applications development.
Etisalat is looking to build up content development expertise in Egypt with the view to constructing its own service enablers in order to launch its own services utilising skills available in Egypt.
"There are a lot of good resources available locally that will be utilised to create our own services," revealed AbdulRazak.
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