ITC: “The challenge what we can squeeze out of our investment. These are the major concerns for operators.”

As one of the biggest economies in the Middle East, high-speed connectivity has long been important to Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom’s Integrated Telecom Company, (ITC), is a service provider that offers internet access to both businesses and consumers. It possesses over 15,000km of fibre optic backbone infrastructure and two independent international gateways, providing it with a competitive advantage over its local rivals.

The telecoms landscape in the country is tightly controlled, but ITC gained a breakthrough in 2005 with a license to provide data connectivity and internet access across the whole country, Mouin Abdallah, the CTO of ITC, tells

The company focused on both the business and the consumer market and was primarily a fixed line provider, but due with to the geographical constraints of the country WiMAX technology proved to be the most effective method of delivering that last mile connectivity to remote areas. The WiMAX network was deployed as far back as 2006, which Abdallah explains was the reason for going with the early 802.16d standard, strictly a fixed line replacement.

The service currently has 60,000 subscribers, according to Informa WBIS statistics, but it’s hard to argue that on a global scale the sun is setting on WiMAX as a technology. Rather than moving to the later mobile focused variant, 802.11e, Abdallah said that ITC is now planning its move to LTE. He admits that in many ways it is like starting again as far as a network deployment. “We have to look to the LTE network as a Greenfield network; we’re not doing a migration.”

Part of the issues ITC faced in terms of its infrastructure was the fact that it served both its consumer and corporate networks from the same network. Its challenge is to smoothly separate the two. “We’re trying to resolve the issue what we have now of having two corporate and consumer segments on the same network; we’re trying to benefit from LTE carrying the consumer segment.”

Abdallah says the rollout is in its final stages and Huwaei has been selected as the vendor. It will run at 2.6GHz for the simple reason that, “that’s what we have available”. He says ITC is glad it has access to a decent amount of FDD 2.6GHz bandwidth, which gives it a fair amount of scope to deliver the services it needs. “We have 2x10MHz, which will give you a certain throughput which is enough at the beginning. But at a later stage we might need more spectrum”.

Rival Mobily is using TDD-LTE technology. Is that something that ITC had considered? “We try to look at the TDD, but FDD is available now. With TDD we have to very careful with compatibility – there are some complications in TDD.”

He admits though that challenge of 2.6GHz is that it requires a large number of sites to compensate for the relative lack of coverage it provides. One way to lower costs is through site sharing, which he says makes sense for all parties. “Basically, when we roll out the networks there are certain things you have to put in place, to find the sites, to acquire the sites, to install the equipment.”

To assist with this process Abdallah has put site sharing agreements in place with other operators, though the level of agreement does not extend to equipment sharing. Spectrum sharing is on the agenda, however he says. “We are exploring spectrum sharing solution, for sure. We’re trying to see how we can leverage the spectrum we have to try to optimise our investment.”

In general Abdallah is happy with the way the move to an LTE future is going. He states that he is glad that ITC doesn’t have to deal with the issues that existing carriers do on their network. Other operators he observes are struggling with the lack of access to good spectrum and are looking to refarm 1.8GHz used for 2G services over to LTE, an issue that ITC does not have to deal with.

“[As] we are a Greenfield we don’t have this [issue]. It might easier as a Greenfield [network]. For an existing operator, I’m not sure how they would implement LTE in their network.”

As a data only player ITC is also less affected by the lack of LTE handsets in the region but will welcome them when they come and hinted that it would like to get into the voice market. “Dongles for us would be enough, but we want the handsets as it will provide us with an additional footprint in the market.”

Abdallah says ITC is keen to learn from the experience of other companies and for that reason is looking for the LTE MENA conference, taking place in Dubai at the end of May. “It’s really important for us to know and understand, from a marketing perspective, what other operators are going to do, how they will optimise their investment, and position LTE technology in the market. It’s going to be really interesting and we’re looking forward to presenting our vision.

“The challenge is how and what we can squeeze, at all levels, out of our investment. These are the major concerns for operators.”

Mouin Abdallah, CTO, ITC, will be speaking at the LTE Middle East and North Africa conference takes place on the 29th-30th April, Westin Mina Seyali, Dubai, UAE. Go to the website to register your interest.

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