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Fri 31 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Expanding horizons

Du senior director Mohamed Al-Shahi on the telecom operator’s ambition to put Dubai on the map.

Best known as a telecoms services provider, UAE operator du is fast developing a reputation as an infrastructure and broadcast transmission support specialist via its du Broadcast Services division. John Parnell speaks to senior director Mohamed Al-Shahi, about the organisation's ambition to put Dubai on the map as the region's top broadcast production and transmission centre.

Launched at CABSAT 2007, du Broadcast Services owns and operates the Samacom teleport facility in Dubai. The company's clients including pan-Arab broadcaster MBC, pay TV operator Showtime and many more of their Dubai Media City (DMC) colleagues, have long been broadcasting via the Samacom teleport.

As the largest teleport in the region, now owned and operated by du Broadcast Services, Samacom is now approaching capacity partly due to the unrelenting launches of FTA channels. This rate of expansion has exceeded the expectations of many in the industry, including Mohamed Saeed Al-Shahi, senior director of du Broadcast Services.

When I became involved with Samacom in 2002, it was not expected that we would need extra capacity over the next 5-10 years. We did not expect to see the phenomenal growth that has occurred. – Al Shahi.

"When I became involved with Samacom in 2002, it was not expected that we would need extra capacity over the next 5-10 years. We did not expect to see the phenomenal growth that has occurred," admits Al-Shahi. "We are obviously very happy to receive the extra business, but we are running out of capacity at the existing teleport."

This does not mean that the next FTA operation to make its pitch will be turned away. The teleport will continue to meet the current needs of the industry, and its projected growth, until 2010. From that point onward, the industry will be relying on the construction of a significant additional installation.

"We are planning a new teleport in Dubai that will be bigger than the existing facility at the Samacom site and will of course be capable of handling a larger capacity. Basically it will more than double our current capability.

"The extra capacity that will be needed to support HD was a major influence in the decision to open the new teleport. Of course it also serves as an opportunity for us to expand our business. We are currently identifying the best site and hope to have the facility in place and operational by 2010," adds Al-Shahi.

Any delay to the construction of this new teleport could prove problematic for the industry with no significant crossover time between Samacom reaching its capacity limits and the estimated start-up time of the new facility.

Al-Shahi says there are many other factors to consider which are very much out of the hands of du and their fellow teleport operators in the region, in Egypt and Jordan.

"The new teleport will be able to handle all the existing channels plus the same volume again. The trouble is finding enough space on the satellites. Nilesat is almost full, Arabsat's BADR-4 is full, so we have to wait for the space to become available on the satellites," claims Al-Shahi.

It is this space shortage, rather than that of the teleports, which remains the more likely to stunt growth in the regional broadcast industry. But growth should not be measured merely by the number of FTA channels operating.

Consumers are likely to want some of this newly available bandwidth assigned for the provision of premium HD content, rather than the continuing discharge of small budget, low relevance and barely watched FTA channels that continues unabated.

The big broadcasters, those with control of the twenty most watched channels, would agree with these sentiments. A consolidation of channels, and perhaps more accurately of bandwidth use, would also represent a consolidation of ad spend. The pay TV operators could also see HD as a potential subscription driver.

The temporary shortage of space with the main satellite operators could even accelerate this consolidation as the cost of bandwidth is driven up as the major players buy up capacity to assign to HD services. This is precisely what du Broadcast Solutions architect Michael Rofe predicted at CABSAT 2008.

In the black

As well as du's Broadcast Services department, the UAE telecom operator is better known for its voice and data services for consumers and businesses. The company has also played an active role in developing IPTV and mobile TV offerings in the UAE.

The company recently released its second quarter results. Losses were down to just under US$12 million, just one sixth of the figure from the same period last year. Revenues had tripled from the equivalent level in 2007.

Du is now set to reach profitability almost one full year ahead of the original target of 4Q 2009, as set by CEO Osman Sultan.

In the immediate future, Al-Shahi says du will be opening up a new platform on Arabsat's recently launched BADR-6 satellite to boost capacity.

Given these restrictions, questions remain over what effect it will have on the region's HDTV rollout.

"There are two points to consider here," claims Al- Shahi. "Firstly, HD will only happen when the broadcasters have the right content in place. Secondly, it will depend on when there is enough space. Realistically I think we are looking at five years from now before the region has a selection of HD services to choose from."

Al Shahi says du is planning a new teleport facility in Dubai that will double capacity compared with the existing site.

He goes on to deny that the bandwidth issue is causing enough concern to scare broadcasters away from investing in HD content and infrastructure.

"We have to wait for the space segment before we can sell it on to broadcasters, so although no-one has signed up for HD transmission services at the moment, I am sure there will be plenty of interested parties," assures Al-Shahi.

"We are already capable of broadcasting HD and we have marketed these services in the Middle East - we advertised our HD uplink and playout capabilities at CABSAT this year," Al-Shahi adds.

"The expansion of the teleport will allow us to cater to more broadcasters and ultimately enable a greater number of channels to operate via our facilities."

And for du this ultimately equates to more growth.

The company does not seem prepared to rely on HD services alone to fuel its long-term growth. It has also been actively chasing new international stations to broadcast from Dubai. Al-Shahi says the addition of new studio production space in the emirate, led by the development of Dubai Studio City (DSC) is making this a far easier sell.

"Our partners at DSC provide a really unique selling point. We can offer potential partners all of the infrastructure they need, access to world class studios, and facilities as part of the package of basing their regional broadcast services in Dubai," says Al-Shahi.

DSC and du have been co-exhibiting at tradeshows, including last year's IBC, with the aim of attracting international channels to the region, and more specifically Dubai.

"We are participating at IBC 2008 to promote our service internationally. We adopted a similar approach successfully last year and we left the show with several leads," says Al-Shahi.

"One of those was with NDTV and they have since launched two channels in the Middle East using our teleport. We are in talks to launch additional channels in the future."

Al-Shahi explains that the number of international channels looking to establish a presence in the Middle East is increasing and Dubai is leading the way, with du handling a number of big players and actively pursuing others.

With a large portion of the responsibility for enabling the region's broadcasting growth, both domestically and internationally. Al-Shahi is aware of this responsibility but is not prepared to settle for mere service provision.

"We exhibit at shows like IBC and CABSAT because it is important to us that present and potential customers are aware that we boast the best production technologies available today," he says.

Customer coverage

Samacom's clients cover the full spectrum of the broadcast industry from network providers to the networks and individual channels themselves.

• Arab Radio Network

• Arabsat

• ARY Digital

• BBC World

• BT

• CNBC Arabiya

• Dubai One

• Globecast

• MBC (all channels)

• Reuters

• Showtime

• TEN Sports

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