>What contribution does the telecoms sector make to GDP in the UAE?

AL GHANIM: The UAE’s telecommunications sector contributes around 5.3% of the GDP in the UAE. This has increased over the past 4 years. In 2007 it was 4.1% and that gives an indication about how strong the ICT sector in the UAE is. The UAE gives great importance to providing the best technology to business. Our ICT sector is one of the strongest in the region. We have been bench-marked, and only advanced countries boast similar figures.

In what ways is the TRA working towards Abu Dhabi’s 2030 vision? What has been achieved thus far in this regard?

AL GHANIM: We have adopted a broadband agenda for the next 5 years and we have been working very closely with both operators, Etisalat and Du. Today, Abu Dhabi city is fully connected with fiber and this makes it the number one city in the world in regard to its fiber connectivity. We have a fully covered capital that is connected with Wi-Fi and hope Du will launch its Wi-Fi network in Abu Dhabi soon. At the same time Etisalat is going to roll out triple play. We expect this to be rolled out all over the UAE by the end of 2012. The telecom sector plays a major role in Abu Dhabi’s Vision 2030. We are supporting the other sectors. One thing we are looking forward to is open competition on infrastructure. Towards the end of 2011, we are going to open infrastructure sharing between Etisalat and Du and that will produce great benefits to the government, to business, and to individuals.

How does a shared network between Etisalat and Du benefit the end user?

AL GHANIM: When we enabled competition in the UAE we started with the mobile sector and we saw a growth in penetration rates from 117% to 200%, which tops the world in terms of mobile penetration. This helps the users to have a lot of different packages to choose from. The TRA processed more than 20,000 prices over the past 3 to 4 years. That gives you an indication about how competition can benefit consumers. If we look into infrastructure sharing, we have adopted the policy a long time ago that reduction in infrastructure investment will lead to better end user pricing. We have been encouraging both operators to share their infrastructure as much as possible, whether it is broadband, fixed, or mobile infrastructure in terms of towers.

Looking into the triple play, the fixed or broadband infrastructure sharing that is going to open up towards the end of the year, we are 100% sure that competition is going to benefit the entire country. We have seen this in the mobile sector and we are looking forward to seeing it in the fixed. Today, broadband prices in the UAE as compared to the advanced countries of the world are not very competitive. We are looking forward to competition to have better pricing for the end user. We are currently conducting friendly user trials because we want to make sure the customer migration from Etisalat to Du or from Du to Etisalat is as smooth as possible and the customer is not affected. The customer has to have the right experience when migrating from his existing operator. Today, there are areas that are serviced only by Etisalat and there are other areas that are only serviced by Du, so there are separate islands of infrastructure. This is not going to be the case at the end of 2011, where customers will have the choice between the two operators. We expect that operators will be very creative and smart in creating packages for customers from single play to triple play.

At present, is the UAE’s fiber optic infrastructure adequate?

AL GHANIM: We are adopting the best technologies in the world. We have about 70% of the households in the UAE connected. We are pushing to have 100% penetration in terms of fiber connectivity and when we finish this, it is not the end of the story. With fiber, you need many services on top of the infrastructure. So hopefully customers all opt for fiber to the home and then subscribe to triple play. We have around 650,000 broadband customers with Etisalat and around 200,000 with Du, so we have roughly 850,000 broadband connections in the UAE. However, migrating those users to triple play is not easy. We hope that over the next couple of years we can move the majority of these users to triple play. This will take the UAE to a completely different level globally on the ICT map.

Can we expect further liberalization of the UAE’s telecoms sector? Will protection of the sector via blocking of Skype, Google Voice, etc. continue indefinitely?

AL GHANIM: I want to clarify two points; market liberalization has nothing to do with Google Voice or Skype. We have a very clear policy, the telecom law in the UAE states that no one can provide telecom services without a license. We have made a very clear VoIP policy, which states that services to the public have to be provided through licensed operators. It is not about blocking or anything else, it is about putting a legitimate business into place by licensing it in the country. None of these companies have applied for a license yet. On the other hand, market liberalization in the UAE has a very clear roadmap. We have a schedule for market liberalization that is filed with the WTO.

What changes can the UAE’s Blackberry users expect in the future?

AL GHANIM: Since our announcements last year, we have been working very closely with Research In Motion (RIM) and the operators here and we have seen tremendous growth in Blackberry users in the UAE and also growth in traffic. Today, because of the proposition coming from the operators, it makes these services very attractive. We have signed a strategic agreement with RIM where we will be taking many services to another level. I would expect there to be a lot of services coming from RIM to the UAE. June 12th was the official launch date of Playbook here in the UAE. Many people are looking forward to this device. We are going to work with RIM on a lot of applications as well; they have already opened the UAE app store. We expect a lot to come from Blackberry services.

What new technological upgrades can we expect in the short to medium term?

AL GHANIM: Today, we have been in a lot of discussions about what is going to happen with the 4th generation (4G) mobile. Both operators have obtained adequate spectrum to launch LTE and they are working very hard to introduce 4th generation mobiles here in the UAE. Globally, I think this is going to be the trend. A lot of countries have already made the choice to deploy and implement 4th generation networks while others are waiting to see the trials. We will be seeing more technology that pushes more data to smart phones. Today, we see huge growth in smart devices. The growth has superseded other growth in the telecom sector. We expect to see more penetration for smart devices and more applications for smart devices. A faster, bigger network is needed to absorb this kind of growth and the only way is to upgrade the 3G networks and by introducing new technologies and this will happen through 4th generation networks. That is from one side, the other side is the increased demand from and usage of social networks. From this we will see the convergence between operators and social networks available on the internet. We see a lot of growth and capability of social networks.