​Middle East mobile trends: Real picture on where region is heading

Mobile technology may be experiencing faster growth in the Middle East than in any other world territory but the wider structural issues remain a barrier to progress.
Written by Damian Radcliffe, Contributor

Mobile data traffic is growing faster in the Middle East and Africa than anywhere in the world.

Image: VV Voennyy

The Middle East loves mobile. Between 2009 and last year, 3G and 4G connections jumped from 20 million to 182 million. By 2020, mobile broadband will account for 69 percent of all mobile connections in the region, the GSMA predicts.

Progress towards that mobile utopia is captured in two reports: the annual global mobile data traffic forecast from Cisco, and a study into regional app trends published by digital hub ArabNet.

The studies highlight the fundamental structural issues that must be remedied for mobile technology to achieve its potential, posing interesting questions for mobile operators, regulators, and content providers alike.

"Globally mobile data traffic grew by 74 percent in 2015," Cisco notes. The fastest level of growth, at a regional level, has been in the Middle East and Africa (MEA). Up 117 percent in the past year, MEA's data growth is some way ahead of other fast-growing markets, such as Asia Pacific on 83 percent or Latin America with 73 percent.

However, that demand in the region is not spread equally.

Within Saudi Arabia and UAE, mobile broadband levels are among the highest in the world. At 114 percent and 111 percent respectively, these Gulf nations are more connected than many countries more widely associated with technology such as South Korea, on 110 percent, Singapore with 106 percent, and the US with 87 percent.

In other MEA countries, such as Egypt, with a 36 percent mobile broadband level, the experience of the technology is much closer to the global average of 38 percent.

Outside the MEA region, our ongoing hunger for data means that even in more mature markets, such as North America and Western Europe, data-consumption levels still rose substantially, up 55 percent and 52 percent respectively, last year.

As the ArabNet authors note, in many regions, "Mobile apps are increasingly responsible for the majority share of global traffic and revenue generation." Across Oceania and the US, app impressions already dwarf web traffic, and across the Americas as a whole the two have very similar levels of online activity.

The picture is reversed in emerging economic regions, such as the Middle East, where web traffic still dominates.

Yet, despite that situation, ArabNet's analysis, based on interviews with 2,500 smartphone users in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, identified a vibrant cohort of app lovers.

Across the sample, 42 percent of smartphone owners stated they had downloaded more than five apps in the past month, with a quarter saying they use all the apps on their phone on a daily basis. Another quarter admitted to using a few favorite apps each day, and the rest weekly.

Given the dominance of web traffic in the region, much of this app activity may take place offline, not least because in MEA those most likely to download apps are low-income consumers, the constituency most likely to keep an eye on their data usage.

If policy makers, content producers, and mobile operators in MEA are keen to grow their online populations, then addressing access issues is essential. Connectivity, namely the high cost of fixed and mobile broadband, has been identified by the World Bank as a major barrier for the region's internet economy.

One potential solution, public Wi-Fi, has yet to be enthusiastically embraced, possibly as a result of operators trying to maximize data revenues. As a result, Cisco predicts that although there will be 433 million public Wi-Fi hotspots around the world by 2020, just one percent of these will be in MEA.

Unless this situation changes, online services are likely to remain out of reach for much of MEA's population for some time.

A further challenge for the region's online economy is the relative paucity of network connection speeds. Ookla's speed test recorded the average speed in the region at 1.9kbps. That figure makes MEA the world's slowest region for mobile broadband.

In contrast, North America, which has the fastest speeds, has an average level of connectivity of 9.9kbps. The second slowest region, Latin America, is still some way ahead of MEA at 2.5kbps.

And although the MEA region is projected to see the fastest rate of progress in this area, with compound annual growth of 45 percent between 2015 and 2020, that improvement will still only deliver an average speed of 4.8kbps at the end of the decade.

Those relatively slow speeds will still leave MEA in 2020 some way behind where North America, Western, Central and Eastern Europe are today, and only just ahead of the current average speed of 4.6kbps for mobile broadband across Asia Pacific.

ArabNet's research also suggests that concerns about security are also holding back the region's app economy. Previously recognized as a hindrance to e-commerce, lack of trust in payment platforms is a barrier to both in-app and initial app purchases.

Local content creators also face challenges of discoverability and reputation.

Over a third of respondents, some 37 percent, reported finding new apps through friends; 32 percent found them through random browsing; and 30 percent through the apps' presence in the featured or bestseller lists, rather than through effective marketing and media coverage.

Similarly, for Arabic speakers, over 30 percent agreed with the statements, 'I prefer international apps,' 'I don't find what I want in Arabic mobile apps', and 'I don't find [Arabic apps] of good quality'.

These obstacles to a more vibrant and active mobile economy within MEA are nothing new. But their continued presence reveals that more still needs to be done to get the region online, and to improve the consumer experience for those who are already connected.

Unless issues of speed, security, local content, affordability, and availability of services are resolved, then the MEA will continue to fall behind other regions in terms of effective mobile broadband take-up.

Nonetheless, Cisco's report offers some causes for optimism.

They suggest that in the next five years MEA will see the highest growth rates of IPv6 devices, with a compound annual rate 35 percent, and that mobile data usage will "experience the highest [regional] CAGR of 71 percent".

As a result, North America, currently the second largest consumer of mobile data, will be usurped by both Central and Eastern Europe and the MEA regions by 2020. In the MEA alone, Cisco anticipates a near 15-fold increase in mobile data traffic by the end of the decade.

If some of the region's wider structural and content issues can be overcome too, then this growth could potentially be even greater still.

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