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

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.
Written by Damian Radcliffe, Contributor

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."

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