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23 April 2024

UAE warms up to mobile broadband wireless system

By Ben Flanagan


The problem with fast-evolving technology is working out when to “make the leap”. When you buy a laptop or mobile phone, you do so knowing that – a few months later – something faster, smarter or just plain cooler will hit the shelves. Eventually, you just have to take the plunge and buy.

So it goes with the much-hyped 4G mobile broadband “revolution”. Telecoms operators must decide not only which 4G technology to adopt, but when it’s best time to adopt it, if at all.

The prospect of 4G sounds impressive on paper. Imagine the UAE as one giant “connectivity bubble”, with internet available nationwide: you could be on the web at work and travel to a meeting without losing connection on the way. The system is like the WiFi you get in coffee shops on a grand scale.

Predictably, there are a few competing global standards in 4G technology.

The Intel-backed WiMax is currently ahead of the 4G game, followed by LTE (backed by AT&T and Verizon Wireless) and – the furthest behind – UMB (backed by Qualcomm). The battle of words between these rivals is intensifying.

Milan Sallaba, partner and UAE office head of consultancy firm Oliver Wyman, told me that WiMax is “totally over-hyped”. “I question whether we’ll see widespread standalone WiMax in the UAE or Gulf. It doesn’t make business sense.”

If you have broadband at home, at work, and at the coffee shop, then all 4G does is fill in the gaps between those places.

Even those pushing 4G admit this. Graham MacDonald, Intel’s Wireless Standards and Regulations Manager, says that “we’re not trying to compete with the DSLs. But [WiMax] is the only technology today that will provide consumers with the best broadband experience.”

While the UAE’s two telecoms operators have been forward-thinking in testing this technology, they have less of a drive to implement 4G as it would, effectively, be competing with their own broadband and 3G networks. This is an issue that is faced by other operators around the world.

So for now, 4G only makes business sense in certain niche areas in

the UAE.