One of six country groupings in the International Telecommunication Union, the Arab States1 region stretches from Mauritania to Yemen, and from Comoros to Iraq. Like a mirror of the world as a whole, the region contains great contrasts in terms of information and communication technologies (ICTs), but is also forging ahead fast.
The newly released ITU report ICT Adoption and Prospects in the Arab Region points to what has been achieved — and the great potential for the future.
Mobile marvel brings Internet links
Similar to other regions, the number of fixed telephone subscriptions in the Arab States is static, having peaked at just under 10 per 100 inhabitants — well under the global average penetration rate of 16.6 per cent. But today’s technology of choice is mobile. ITU statistics2 show that, between 2006 and 2011, the number of mobile cellular subscriptions in the Arab States soared from 126 million to almost 350 million. This represents nearly 97 subscriptions for every 100 people, ahead of the world average penetration rate of some 87 per cent.
Mobile devices are bringing more and more people online. Several countries, including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), were early adopters of 3G mobile technologies, and the number of mobile broadband subscriptions in the region mushroomed from three million in 2007 to an estimated 48 million in 2011. ITU estimates that mobile-broadband penetration in the Arab region has reached more than 13 per cent — not far from the 17 per cent world average.
Meanwhile, reflecting the low number of fixed telephone lines, fixed-broadband Internet subscriptions are also limited in the Arab States, with only 2.2 per 100 inhabitants, compared to the world average of 8.5 per cent. Nevertheless, this equates to eight million fixed broadband subscriptions, massively up from one million in 2006.
Although official data are difficult to obtain for the majority of countries in the region, it is estimated that by the end of 2011, around 30 per cent of the population in the Arab States were Internet users, at home or elsewhere, and via mobile or fixed connections. This compares with a global average of almost 35 per cent.
For ICTs as a whole, the Arab States region is ahead of Africa and, in many aspects, the Asia-Pacific region. But it lags behind the Americas, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and Europe. Regional figures, however, conceal a wide diversity in ICT access among individual countries.
A diverse region
For every 100 people in Saudi Arabia, there are around 188 mobile phone subscriptions; in Djibouti, there are fewer than 20. More than 80 per cent of the population in Qatar uses the Internet, but the figure is below five per cent in Mauritania, Iraq and Somalia. Countries with higher incomes — members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — have more than twice as many Internet users per 100 inhabitants as the non-GCC countries.
In general, the level of access to information and communication technologies within the Arab States region is correlated with a country’s economic status. This is revealed in the ICT Development Index (IDI)3, developed by ITU to combine eleven indicators covering 152 economies worldwide to monitor and compare ICT uptake.
The latest findings, based on data from beginning 2011, show that of the 16 Arab States included in the index, five lost ground between 2008 and 2010 and dropped in the global ranking. However, four countries maintained their positions and seven (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Comoros) improved their IDI rankings. Top of the regional list was the UAE, which was in 32nd place out of the 152 in the global IDI rankings. Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia filled places 44, 45 and 46, respectively.
Between 2008 and 2010, Saudi Arabia saw a massive rise in mobile broadband, from two million subscriptions to almost 16 million. Morocco also substantially increased its number of Internet users and mobile broadband subscriptions, and stands out as the star performer overall. It rose ten places in the IDI rankings, achieving a similar status in access to ICTs as economies in other regions that had significantly higher levels of GDP4 . Along with Saudi Arabia, Morocco is well placed to meet the goal of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development5 in having half its population online by 2015. Qatar has already reached the target, as have Bahrain, Oman and the UAE.
Prices and capacities
The ICT Price Basket6 , created by ITU alongside the ICT Development Index and covering 165 economies globally, is based on the charges to consumers for fixed telephony, mobile telephony, and fixed broadband Internet services, and is computed as a percentage of average income levels in each country.
The results of the latest ICT Price Basket confirm that ICT services are becoming cheaper worldwide. In particular, prices for fixed-broadband services dropped by over 50 per cent globally between 2008 and 2010, and by 35 per cent in the Arab States. But ICT services are still not affordable for many people. On a regional basis, prices in the Arab States are expensive and, as a percentage of monthly gross national income (GNI) per capita, are exceeded only by those in Africa.
At the level of individual countries, disparities are revealed in line with wealth. In Arab States with relatively high GNI per capita, the cost of accessing ICTs represents less than one per cent of average monthly income (UAE and Bahrain), or less than two per cent (Saudi Arabia and Oman). The figure is below four per cent in Qatar, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan. In contrast, ICT services remain largely unaffordable in Comoros, Yemen, Djibouti and Mauritania, for example, where they cost more than 20 per cent of GNI per capita.
But what might customers get for their money? Access to the Internet is now an essential element of modern life, and its speed and capacity depend on bandwidth.
While all regions in the world have substantially increased international Internet bandwidth per Internet user since 2005, there are great disparities. Europe had almost 80 Kbit/s of bandwidth per user in 2010, compared with 1 Kbit/s per user in Africa. Internet users in the Arab States had around 11 Kbit/s per user at their disposal, slightly more than Internet users in the Asia-Pacific region but lagging behind the CIS and the Americas, where users enjoyed more than twice the amount of bandwidth.
The Arab States region is improving, though, and between 2005 and 2010, raised enormously its amount of international Internet bandwidth per user by nearly 1400 per cent.
Fast broadband connections to the Internet are the foundation for the future. To help deliver them, fibre optic infrastructure is available in most Arab States, but coverage remains limited to urban areas and high-income customers. Most ICT regulators understand the potential economic and social benefits of broadband, and they are putting priority on improving access to it.
The new ITU report highlights that a regulatory environment that fosters investment and increases competition in both the fixed and mobile broadband markets, and in all areas of infrastructure, can bring down prices. In addition, governments can do much to help expand broadband coverage to rural and remote areas, through the promotion of public-private partnerships for example, or by directly supporting strategic public investment in broadband networks.
Meanwhile, popular demand for broadband services will increase as more content is produced locally and in Arabic. In May 2010, Egypt was the first country to introduce an Internet domain name in Arabic, and other countries have followed. The region is undergoing a boom in the supply of Arabic digital content, and governments could encourage more to be created by supporting young entrepreneurs, and by reviewing tax and copyright regimes.
Progress is taking place in the Arab States — and even more could be achieved, given the relative wealth of some countries. The UAE, for instance, has been very active in promoting ICTs and has a rank of 32 in the ICT Development Index; however, Iceland — with an almost identical GDP — is in third place in the world rankings. Similarly, Barbados has a lower GDP than Oman, but is placed at 41 in the index, while Oman is at 60. Oman is moving forward, however, and has substantially increased the number of Internet users and mobile broadband subscriptions.
There is room for continuing and rapid improvement in the use of the region’s resources. With effective regulatory policies and more investment in infrastructure, all the Arab States could achieve their full potential in ICTs and take advantage of a uniquely powerful engine of development.
1 The ITU Member States of the Arab region are Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia , Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. All data and information on Sudan refer to the situation in Sudan before the independence of South Sudan in July 2011.
2 Unless otherwise stated, figures are from ITU’s World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators database.
3 ICT Development Index: www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/publications/idi/index.html
4 GDP figures are from the World Bank. See : http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD
5 For more information, see http://www.broadbandcommission.org/Documents/Broadband_Targets.pdf
6 Price Basket in www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/publications/idi/index.html