Recent moves towards Saudi telecom privatization have introduced new dynamics in network development. Pyramid Research revealed that STC (Saudi Telecommunications Company), the kingdom’s sole mobile operator, began last week testing the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), bringing in Internet access to mobile phones.
STC is now also beginning tests on an alternative to GPRS technology, designed to boost the speed of data transfer via mobile phones. Pyramid Research believes the technology to be tested is HSCSD, although this has not yet been confirmed by STC.
Off to a relatively late start, introducing the Internet only in January 1999, Saudi Arabia has since achieved a 160 percent Internet user annual growth rate, the highest of all Arab countries. Approximately 2.2 million fixed lines now connect as many as 350,000 Saudi Internet users to the World Wide Web. Saudi Arabia’s voice-enabled networks however make it the only GCC member state where data services, such as SMS (Short Text Messaging) and WAP, are still unavailable.
The Saudi telecom market is the largest and fastest growing in the Middle East region. With more than one million mobile phone subscribers, Saudi Arabia is already a major GSM exponent. In a couple of years' time, the number of mobile users is expected to exceed the number of fixed lines, making it likely for people to have their first encounter with the Internet via their mobile phones.
Local content is the key to success in wireless technology, therefore opportunities for ISPs, content providers and banks are great. All Arab GSM operators that offer WAP thus far have introduced an open gateway to the Internet while at the same time promoting their own cellular portal as the gateway of choice. Pyramid Research asserts that STC is likely to follow suit.
Although the number of regional GSM subscribers is expected to soar to 17 million in 2002 and then shoot up to 35 million in 2004, WAP services are currently available only in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco. With the commencement of WAP testing in Saudi Arabia, STC joins Bahrain’s Batelco, Egypt’s Mobinil and the UAE’s Etisalat, all undergoing trial phases for the protocol.
Saudi Arabia has been a world leader in telephony and data since the 1960s, becoming the first country in the world to have a fully computerized telephone system, the world’s first to have a commercial cellular system, and the first to introduce caller-ID and ISDN. With substantial investments in GSM systems, and with WAP service at hand, Saudi Arabia once again aims to revive its golden era and lead the way for Middle East telecoms. — (Albawaba-MEBG)
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