Apple’s latest tablet – iPad 3 – is incompatible with the Middle East’s new 4G networks; marking a setback to local operators who have invested millions of dollars upgrading their mobile internet infrastructure to accommodate such devices.
Etisalat announced the commercial launch of Etisalat 4G LTE Network in December 2011. 4G is a wireless term indicating “Fourth Generation” network or service. It is a natural progression from 3G networks and ensures faster speeds, where data transfers take less time to complete. LTE indicates “Long Term Evolution” and is the wireless network standard being used by Etisalat in Dubai and the UAE.
Emirates Telecommunications Corporation, branded trade name Etisalat (Arabic: اتصالات Ittiṣālāt, literally, Communications) is a UAE based telecommunications services provider, currently operating in 18 countries across Asia, the Middle East and Africa. As of February 2012, Etisalat is the 15th largest Mobile network operator in the world, with a total customer base of more than 135 million.
Etisalat’s 4G LTE network allows people to share music and photos, surf the Web, and download files through the modem at the most-awaited super speeds of upto 100Mbps.
When Apple unveiled its new tablet this month, one of the key selling points was the 4G internet capability.
The iPad 3 is already available in Dubai and the UAE via the grey market, with prices as high as Dh5,999 (US$1,633) for the top-range 4G model – almost double the US list price. But residents of the Middle East who buy the device will not be able to use its super-fast internet function. That is because the tablet – unofficially dubbed the “iPad 3” – works on a different frequency from the new 4G networks in markets such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Regional telecommunications companies, which have spent millions of dollars building next-generation mobile-data networks, say this is a missed opportunity. Sacha Dudler, an aAviser to the Chief Executive of Strategic Operations at the Saudi Telecom Company (STC), said the news was a “disappointment”. STC is one of several Middle Eastern operators to have installed long-term evolution (LTE) networks, which are often marketed as 4G.
“The LTE connectivity won’t work anywhere in the Middle East,” Mr Dudler said of the new iPad. “The thing we’re most interested in as an operator [is] to showcase the ability of new technology,” he added. “We’re disappointed that it’s not yet going to happen.”
Apple’s latest tablet – iPad3 – works on LTE networks running at the 700 and 2100 megahertz frequencies, which are used by operators in the United States. But most of the Middle East’s 4G networks operate at the 2600 and 1800 ranges. LTE offers data speeds of more than 100 megabits per second – more than double the fastest connection offered by the existing 3G service.
“I think that it’s a missed opportunity,” said Matthew Willsher, the Chief Marketing Officer at Etisalat, confirming that the iPad 3 is not compatible with the UAE operator’s 4G network. He said this was a problem also found in some other markets. Mr Willsher said he expected future versions of the iPad to be compatible with more networks.
“I’m looking forward to the next iteration of the product, and iPad customers getting the benefit of our LTE network.” However, Mr Dudler said he did not expect that to happen any time soon. “There are rumours that Apple is tailoring an iPad for European specifics, which can help for the Middle East because we share similar bands. But it’s a challenge and I wouldn’t expect that to happen immediately,” he said.
Apple did not respond to a request for comment. Analysts said the compatibility problem is a setback for Middle Eastern telecoms companies, which have been keen to market next-generation mobile networks. “It must certainly be a disappointment,” said Matthew Reed, a senior analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media. “It would have given a bit of impetus to the take-up of LTE.”
Five Middle Eastern telecoms companies made rival claims to be first in the region to launch 4G networks. These include the Saudi operators STC, Mobily and Zain Saudi Arabia, as well as Etisalat and du in the UAE. Bahrain is inviting bids for LTE frequencies, which it expects to be awarded to operators in March next year. Mohamed Mahmood, an Executive at the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Bahrain, said the proposed LTE frequencies in Bahrain would not support the new iPad.