4G picks up in Gulf slowly but surely
Uptake of 4G internet in the Gulf has been "slow", despite operators spending millions of dollars installing and promoting faster mobile networks.
The new networks offer mobile-data speeds of more than double the best possible connection offered by 3G. Regional operators admit they have attracted few 4G subscribers - but say the numbers are set to pick up with the wider availability of compatible devices.
Zain Saudi Arabia is one of several regional operators to have launched 4G mobile networks. Hisham Mustafa Allam, the Chief Technical Officer at Zain Group, said there had been "a couple of thousand" of subscribers to its 4G service in Saudi Arabia, which launched last year.
"We had a slow start. But I think it's starting to pick up," he said. Mr Allam said Zain Group had also tested LTE, or Long Term Evolution, networks in Kuwait and Bahrain. He said he expected Zain to have "hundreds of thousands" of 4G subscribers by this time next year. That will depend on more 4G-compatible phones and tablets becoming available in the Middle East, commentators say.
The new Apple iPad, one of the flagship 4G devices, is not compatible with local high-speed networks because it uses a different frequency. Most of the region's 4G subscribers currently use a mobile USB "dongle" to access the high-speed networks via a laptop. The UAE's Etisalat launched its 4G network last year. The operator's network uses LTE, which is sometimes referred to as 4G for marketing purposes.
Saeed Abdulla Al Zarouni, the senior vice president for mobile networks at Etisalat, acknowledged access to 4G via dongles meant demand was limited. "With the dongle only, the take-up is a little slow," he said. However, Mr Al Zarouni said the arrival of new 4G devices would help open up the market.
"I think by the third or fourth quarter of this year, the LTE take-up will be much more aggressive," he said. "We are testing some Samsung tablets [that] will be ready in the market soon. So the customer will have more options." Matthew Reed, a senior analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media, said that the slow uptake of LTE in the Middle East was a reflection of a wider global trend.
Globally, there are just 15 million LTE subscribers, more than half of whom are claimed by the US operator Verizon Wireless, according to Informa. "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," said Mr Reed.
"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, said it was early days but he forecast "tremendous uptake" of 4G in the Middle East.