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Middle East gears up for 5G

The race for 5G is well and truly under way, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia are well positioned to be among the first countries in the world to deliver the benefits of this new telecoms protocol

Futurists have been selling a vision in the Middle East of a time when people, organisations and machines can all seamlessly access whatever they like, wherever they want.

But the reality is often far from this ideal, with consumers enduring long waits to watch a video or suffering service breakdowns at crucial moments, especially if a lot of other people in the area are trying to access the same service.

But 5G, if the hype is true, will enable greater speeds to move more data more quickly, and will connect a much greater number of devices, such as sensors and smart devices.

“It is anticipated that some 50 billion devices will be connected to mobile networks worldwide by 2020, and a large proportion of the communications will be between machines rather than humans,” said Saleem Al Blooshi, chief infrastructure officer at Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company (EITC), the holding company behind UAE operator Du.

“For a mobile network to carry the weight of the smart city of the future, it needs a fast, responsive and stable mobile network that can handle a vast amount of data. It needs 5G – and this is what we are gearing up for.”

The arrival of 5G will also improve experiences in mobile gaming, for example, which has gained a lot of momentum in the Middle East, as latency issues are reduced, and video calls will be clearer and less likely to break up. And as the popularity of video and music streaming continues to soar across the region, 5G is predicted to make it near-instantaneous.

“People are using video like they used voice in the past,” said Al Blooshi. “They want to watch content on-demand instead of watching the type of television you have at home, which is limited to certain channels. 5G will also cater to high-definition viewing, such as 4K and HD. Such viewing is increasing the need for much higher wireless speeds.”

According to analyst IDC, 5G will accelerate the Middle East’s digital transformation journey by enabling a wide range of innovative applications built around technologies such as the industrial internet of things (IIoT), augmented reality, virtual reality and artificial intelligence (AI).

“The commercial launch of 5G services by operators in the Gulf Cooperation Council will be crucial,” said Ranjit Rajan, associate vice-president, IDC Middle East, Africa and Turkey. “As such, they are positioning 5G as one of the key technologies underpinning the development of smart cities and the use of autonomous and connected vehicles, robots and drones.”

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Regional operators have already made headline announcements about 5G services. Expo 2020 Dubai has already signed up to be Etisalat’s first major commercial customer for its 5G services, with the network expected to deliver services to 30,000 visitors a day.

In Saudi Arabia, Al Khobar was recently proclaimed as the first city in the region to test a 5G network. The country has created a national 5G taskforce to drive deployment of the technology, with the Saudi Telecom Company having launched a live 5G network in the Gulf state – the first phase of operating the service once 5G becomes generally available.

Meanwhile, networking giant Cisco is working with a number of service providers in the Middle East and Africa (MEA), including Du and STC, to unlock the commercial potential of ultra-modern 5G mobile networks and delivering new revenue-generating services.

“With 5G, many industries in the MEA market will find new ways to leverage technology,” said Ali Amer, managing director, global service provider sales, at Cisco Middle East and Africa. “These will include connected cars, home and office security and automation, smart metering, maintenance, building automation, automotive, healthcare and consumer electronics.”

As well as enhanced mobile broadband and expanding machine connectivity, pundits cite critical machine-type communication as a key benefit of 5G, as it can deliver ultra-reliable, resilient and instantaneous connectivity with stringent requirements on availability, latency and throughput.

“The reality is that the present-day networking technologies, frameworks and architectures are insufficient to cope with the demands of tomorrow’s digitally connected 5G world,” said Cisco’s Amer. “For this, networks need to scale in entirely different ways. To drill down further, 5G is not just about the new spectrum, it is about changing the entire network to be highly scalable.”

Don’t get carried away

But some industry experts caution the Middle East not to get too carried away just yet. Data and analytics company GlobalData recently pointed out that 5G will not be widely commercially available until 2019 – and that even by the end of that year, only 0.09% of all mobile data traffic will be carried over 5G.

IDC’s Rajan said that although 5G initiatives “will open up considerable opportunities relating to the national transformation ambitions of programmes such as Vision 2021 in the UAE and Vision 2030 in Saudi Arabia, operators are likely to encounter a few challenges in the short to medium term”.

He added: “The most significant of these challenges will be implementing a network roll-out plan that enables them to maximise the returns on their 4G investments of the past, but there will also be issues around the availability of sufficient spectrum, the conceptualisation of new use cases and business models, and the integration or migration of IoT technologies.”

Alaa ElShimy, managing director and vice-president, enterprise business at Huawei Middle East, said 2019 “will be the year” that 5G starts to make an impact. “The infrastructure requirements needed to make 5G a reality mean that the investment from operators needs to be big,” he said. “But at the same time, from a business point of view, we believe it is going to make a big difference to many different industries.”

EITC’s Al Blooshi added: “The mass adoption of 5G in the UAE will completely transform the landscape when it comes to how residents utilise their various connected devices, and further strengthen the IoT services in the region, which Du provides. However, even though we will be ready from a network perspective, we still need to wait for terminals and handsets to really catch up before this is commercially available.”

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