Who's the world's fibre broadband leader? Prepare to be surprised

Who's the world's fibre broadband leader? Prepare to be surprised

Summary: The country with the most fibre to the home connections is one you might not expect — thanks to a building boom, an online services push, and high population density.

TOPICS: Fiber, Broadband, Telcos

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has the highest penetration in the world of fibre to the home connectivity (FTTH), according to research by the Fibre to the Home Council Middle East & North Africa.

Across the UAE, 85 percent of homes subscribe to FTTH, with subscription rates in the next-biggest markets — South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan — ranging from 63 percent to 37 percent, the council notes

Speaking at the ITU's recent World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC), the Council's chairman Dr Suleiman Al Hedaithy noted that "fibre connections are available to more than 200 million homes globally — a tenth of all the households in the world", adding that of these homes, "an estimated 107 million households subscribe to fibre-based services".

Across the Middle East and North Africa, "more than 1.5 million households are using FTTH services", Al Hedaithy said, with the UAE "ranked number one in FTTH penetration rate globally, for the past two consecutive years".

How they did it

The UAE's FTTH leadership is a product of a number of factors, including rapid expansion of new housing and real estate (where FTTH is rolled out as standard), as well as the country's relatively small population (9.2 million in 2012 according to World Bank estimates) and a population that is relatively undispersed geographically.

Christine Beylouni, director general at FTTH Council Middle East & North Africa, told ZDNet that two further factors had also played a key role in the UAE's success.

The first was "the UAE's government core focus and mission to put UAE ahead in the delivery of digital services". These ambitions include areas of "e-commerce, e-government, e-educations and e-health", all of which "created the need of a future proof infrastructure to deploy these e-solutions", she said.

For example, UAE residents can use a smart card to access services such as eGate — which allows them to pass through immigration at UAE airports using biometric authentication — and services have also been put in place allowing for the paying of traffic fines, utility bills or Zakat (alms giving paid by Muslims) online. 

Alongside this, Beylouni also noted that the country's two operators, du and Etisalat, had "invested heavily in the FTTH infrastructure and helped connecting all homes and business with the vision to transform the UAE into smart homes and smart cities".

Like many countries in the region, the UAE has a vision for transitioning to a "knowledge based and highly productive economy" as part of a stated aim "to be among the best countries in the world by 2021". Alongside ambitions for "vibrant culture" and "enhanced international standing", Vision 2021 also expresses the ambition for "a competitive economy driven by knowledgeable and innovative Emiratis".

The importance of the vision was showcased with the release of du's first quarter results, which saw Osman Sultan, du's CEO, announce that "in 2014 we will continue to work towards Vision 2021 so that we actively engage with plans to implement a Smart Government across the UAE and transform Dubai into a Smart City".

Meanwhile, Etisalat CEO Saleh Al Abdooli, in acknowledging UAE's inaugural topping of the FTTH charts last year, highlighted the AED 19bn ($5.17bn) that his company had invested in FTTH.

Last year, the total length of the UAE's fibre network was equivalent to "five times the distance between the Earth and the moon, consisting of a total of 2.8 million kilometres of cable being deployed all over the country", Al Abdooli said.

Regional trends in FTTH

The UAE figures announced at WTDC were supported by the Council's annual study into FTTH across the Middle East and North Africa region. Produced in partnership with IDATE, it identified 43 live FTTH projects across 19 countries in the region at the end of September 2013. 

This included efforts such as STC's ambition to reach two million Saudi homes via FTTH by end 2013 (around 38 percent of households) and moves in Qatar by both Ooredoo and QNBN to provide near universal fibre coverage by 2015.

The study found that in both UAE and Qatar, in FTTH coverage areas take-up rates of FTTH exceed 50 percent, compared to 41.7 percent across the region. However, it also noted that the fastest speeds, typically packages that offer up to 100Mbps and over, are only available in five countries — Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE — and that "tariffs in MENA are comparable to those proposed in North America, making the region one of the most expensive".

Meanwhile, there are "no relevant FTTH projects" in Libya, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, or Palestine, it added.

2014-18 predictions

By 2018, the Council and IDATE estimate that there will be 2.3 million subscribers in the region with 6.1 million homes passed by a fibre network — a noticeable jump on the 1.3 million subscribers and 3.1 million homes in late 2013.

Much of this growth is expected to come from emerging FTTH markets such as Egypt, Algeria, and Kuwait, where increased coverage will help drive adoption.

More mature markets such as UAE, Saudi, and Qatar meanwhile "have already reached FTTH maturity" and so growth "will be steady in the coming years", the report states.

For Beylouni, the UAE's FTTH experience offers a great opportunity to transfer the "know-how and lessons learnt of such success stories from [one] country to another in the MENA region".

By doing this, she said, the council hopes "to accelerate FTTH deployment and to keep the region among the FTTH leading countries".

The benefits of this, Al Hedaithy told WTDC attendees, would benefit both rural and urban communities; with competition, national plans, cloud services, new housing programs, the move to LTE and the need for fibre backhaul, all playing a role in supporting this ambition.

"The future," he said, "is definitely FTTH."

Read more on fibre from around the world

Topics: Fiber, Broadband, Telcos

Damian Radcliffe

About Damian Radcliffe

Damian Radcliffe has been working in media and technology since 1995. He is currently based in Qatar where he is researching and reporting on the societal impact of ICT and emerging internet issues in the Middle East, as well as wider global developments.

This follows 17 years in the UK's commercial, public, regulatory and non-profit communications sectors, in a range of mid-level and senior editorial, research and policy roles.

Damian was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2008 and Honorary Research Fellow at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies in 2012.

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  • Fider Leaders

    Its easy to see that UAE has the highest penetration in the world, because up to 10/20 years or so ago the citys were more like large towns, where as most western countries have be around for hundreds of years & it takes time & money to big up pavements & roads.

    But every country is finally picking up speed, especially here in the UK. Finally.
    • Digital britain? No it isn't.

      All that is happening in the UK is that the incumbent is patching up the old copper phone network and marketing it as 'superfast fibre broadband'. It isn't fibre broadband if it comes down a phone line and millions on long lines are still on pathetic connections. Good luck to all the countries with the sense to lay fibre and not listen to the hype from telcos seeking to protect their investments for another decade and stifle innovation.
      • To be British...

        When the rest of Europe went through the first round of digital transmission, ISDN, the British elected to oppose it "OfTel" could not see the use of it and ridiculed the idea.
        Then some companies started buying old sewage pipes, and pulled fibre in London based on US SONET technology, that is incompatible with the rest of the world. Since then, the UK has been a paradise for "Popular Mechanics" ideas, cropping up like mushroom in a wet basement. Ofcom still does not have a clue, and base their skill and knowledge on contracted resources that are hired for each project. They are of course motivated by their pay, and experience is what they have done. There is no pay for using common sense, just for delivering a report that the managers will "approve", making it a haven for contractors that have become useless to the telecommunication companies.
  • Surprise!

    Let's see: Small country (9 million pop), high GDP per person approximately the same as the US, economy highly dependent on petroleum exports (which are not infinite), no appreciable natural resources beyond fish, strong government support for building an information-based economy for when the oil dries up... not terribly surprising when you think about it.
    • Petro dollars

      ..are not involved in this at all, but I doubt his statistics, Singapore has a higher penetration than Dubai since it is much smaller than even this one Emirate.

      Fibre is much cheaper than copper and is the favoured way of transmission now - if you have the opportunity to decide. Most of the US does not have a standardised structure, so copper prevails, it does not make sense to splice a copper wire with a fibre link, or hook up a house with fibre, as long as the backbone is copper.
    • Still a backwards country

      I do not think that information tech will be their saving grass. Once the oil dries up, so will the country. And women will still be second class citizens.
  • Cats and dogs, Fish and Fowl, ITU and the FCC

    The US has its own regime of technologies that cannot work with the ITU regime of standards. So what is the surprise about?

    Fibre is cheaper than copper to pull, it has a huge capacity compare to ADSL copper wires, and if you need more and use ITU standards, you can split one into logical units, with SDH, and add DWDM - Dense wave dense multiplexing. It was the Americans that decided to break with the rest of the world - based on the limited knowledge of media and lobbyists running the errand for US company that saw the opportunity to receive US federal grants to their proprietary projects. Well, in the rest of the world FTTH is common, cable and Internet and phone - "triple play" is the game. You can also get wireless links that emulates STM fiber, which is used in the rest of the world to quickly throw a 2GBps link 40 miles. Pay the US company from your tax money and smile, or try to convince the politicians that the US is still 10 to 15 years behind the rest of the world.
  • Where Will the West Be in 2021?

    In China they're building up their infrastructure (unfortunately killing off their population through pollution in the process). India is on a big push to build up their infrastructure. Now we're hearing that the Arab states are building up their infrastructure. Good infrastructure combined with ready access to large populations with disposable income draws business. So in the decades that follow these building plans there should be some economic boom times for those countries that have good infrastructure.

    Here in the US we're seeing a resurgence of Ma'Bell and she is mighty stingy with her funds. If we were to follow the money and try to find out why US citizens pay more and get less than most of the world we'd find that the communication companies (like so many others) are chasing consumers in developing countries.
    • We will be selling those countries water and food

      Because everything there will be too poisonous to eat or drink.
      • That is, assuming OUR water and food

        are not too contaminated by leakage from tar sand oil pipelines and fracking for gas to sell to them also.
  • But what do the Taliban say?

    What is the point of all this if the basic mentality of the people is Muslim? That is "back to the stone age".
  • How They Did It

    They have lots of oil dollars to spend, so they spend it on giving everyone high speed Internet, among other things.