Middle East cellcos face uphill LTE battle

Matthew Reid/Informa Telecoms and Media
02 May 2012

Within the past year, four Middle East operators have launched LTE: Etisalat in the UAE; and all three of the mobile operators in Saudi Arabia – STC, Mobily and Zain.

But it is still early days for LTE in the Middle East. Although none of the operators will reveal their LTE subscription numbers, the indications at the LTE MENA conference, which was put on by Informa Telcoms & Media in Dubai on April 29-30, were that the number of LTE subscriptions in the region is still only in the low thousands.

Of course, the Middle East is not alone in this – LTE is a new technology and LTE subscriptions worldwide at end-1Q12 totalled only about 15 million, of which more than half are accounted for by just one operator, Verizon Wireless in the US, with about eight million LTE subscriptions.

One of the factors behind the low take-up of LTE in the Middle East is – as elsewhere – the lack of LTE devices. The LTE devices that Middle East operators are offering are almost entirely limited to LTE-enabled USB modems (dongles), though Zain Saudi Arabia has recently also introduced a LTE/Wi-Fi router.

However, Etisalat, STC and Zain Group all said at the LTE MENA conference that they monitoring the LTE device market and are considering forming partnerships with device makers to introduce additional LTE devices, particularly LTE-enabled smartphones and tablet PCs.

Middle East operators are typically much less active in the device market than their peers in Europe and North America. But the arrival of LTE arguably presents Middle East operators with an opportunity, or perhaps a need, to become directly involved in the sale of LTE devices.

The fact that Middle East operators are short of suitable devices to popularize LTE was demonstrated by the recent launch of the new, third version of Apple’s iPad. Middle East operators hoped this LTE-enabled version of the iPad would give a push to demand for LTE connections.

But their hopes were dashed because the iPad is at present only configured to work with the spectrum bands used for LTE in North America, 700MHz and 2.1GHz – neither of which is being used for LTE in the Middle East.

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