How Saudi Arabia is paving the way to be a regional leader in 5G

Saudi Arabia, one of ITU’s Top Contributors, is leading the way in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region with the development of the next generation of mobile communications, say Saudi officials eager to showcase the Kingdom’s ambitious plans to test and rollout transformational 5G services.

Like many other countries in the MENA region, Saudi Arabia has a large, young and growing population with an insatiable demand for connectivity, ranging from personal entertainment and social networking to wearables and the Internet of Things.

Furthermore, the country is undergoing a phase of economic development and industrial diversification that will require top-notch information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure and services.

Laying the groundwork

The Saudi Arabian government has long recognized the importance of broadband communications, and the potential benefits of 5G technologies now fit well into the country’s plans to build a leading modern economy as outlined in its Vision 2030.

So the Kingdom is not wasting any time.

“Saudi Arabia is determined to be a world leader in 5G to take early advantage of its benefits.” – Abdullah Al-Sawahah, Minister of Communications and Information Technology

Over the last 12 months, CITC, Saudi Arabia’s national ICT regulator, awarded 160 MHz of additional IMT spectrum in 700 MHz, 800 MHz and 1800 MHz bands to mobile operators Mobily, Saudi Telecommunications Company (STC) and Zain.

This makes Saudi Arabia a regional leader in terms of awarded International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) spectrum in sub-GHz IMT bands and should help support the organic growth of domestic mobile network capacities, from 3G and 4G to 5G, say officials.

His Excellency Prof. Abdulaziz S. Al-Ruwais, the Governor of CITC, highlighted the importance of spectrum availability for 5G. He emphasized that to achieve a connected society, 5G services require access to spectrum in a variety of bands to support the multitude of use cases, including the need to improve the quality of the services offered, and to accommodate much wider channels than those in use today.

National 5G Task Force welcomes investors

To aid further development of 5G and prepare the necessary administrative foundations, the National 5G Task Force was established in early 2018.

The Task Force is led by a Steering Committee that sets the general strategy directions and oversees progress. It unites all stakeholders with an interest in 5G, such as government, operators, equipment vendors and potential user groups.

Specialized work is carried out in three subcommittees that deal respectively with “5G Spectrum”, “5G Development” and “5G verticals”.

All the necessary national 5G policies and supporting administrative provisions are planned to be in place before the end of 2019, along with the award of initial batches of spectrum to support the full commercial deployment of 5G technologies.

Majed Almazyed, the Deputy Governor of CITC for Technology and Infrastructure and the Chair of the 5G Task Force, indicated that the successful rollout of 5G will require significant levels of commercial investment.

“The Government is taking an active role to help create the best conditions for the private sector to invest in developing and deploying 5G in Saudi Arabia in a timely and efficient manner,” says Almazyed.

These measures include increased regulatory certainty vis-à-vis operators’ business and technological flexibility requirements, which is offered by means of the Unified Licence, the scheme implemented in the Kingdom since 2017. This will be backed by timely availability of 5G spectrum.

Another key hook for private investment, officials say, will be robust government promotion and incentives linked to service provision in the 5G ecosystem – including services in 5G verticals, such as e-Health, e-Industry, Smart Cities, to name a few. The CITC is planning to develop and publish the 5G Roadmap by the end of 2018 which will outline the government steps in that direction.

First regional 5G pilots

As one of the first practical steps towards achieving 5G, the CITC issued Test & Trial licenses to all three national mobile operators in early May 2018.

These licenses allow the operators to pilot 5G technologies from now until the end of 2019 by utilizing 100 MHz channels in 3.6-3.8 GHz band, with individual test sites coordinated and authorized in a speedy administrative procedure.

All three Saudi mobile operators have enthusiastically embraced this opportunity and all major mobile infrastructure vendors have committed to supporting 5G testing efforts.

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The Saudi Telecommunications Company launched one of the first operational 5G sites in the MENA region in early May 2018 in Al Khobar’s Corniche area.

They were implemented with Huawei 5G NR equipment utilising 100 MHz TDD channel in Band 42 configuration.

“We have confidence, knowledge and innovation, which will enable us to lead the 5G era,” said STC Group’s CEO, Eng. Nasser Al Nasser. ”The launch of 5G started with operating a number of towers, initially in the Eastern region. The company will continue working on building the network construction gradually in the cities of the Kingdom, until the consumer devices are available during 2019.”

Emerging 5G vision for the Middle Eastern market

“Saudi Arabia is determined to be a world leader in 5G to take early advantage of its benefits,” said Minister of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT), Abdullah Al-Sawahah.

The launch of 5G services will enable consumers to enjoy fiber-like connectivity over wireless networks, by reaching throughputs above 1Gbps in the first phase. Beyond the provision of enhanced Mobile Broadband, 5G technology is seen as an enabler of future innovative services and applications.

5G will not only improve the speed and efficiency of communication for consumers, it will also enhance the entire mobile services ecosystem by offering much more sophisticated use cases such as the Internet-of-Things, Augmented Reality (AR), robotization and industrial automation.

Services that require extreme low latency and mission critical applications will be possible with 5G networks.

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One socio-industrial development that will be able to harness the full potential of 5G technologies is the NEOM, the city of the future, which is being built in the North-Western part of the Kingdom, along the Red Sea. Saudi officials hope NEOM will become a major pan-regional hub of innovation and industrial development, where the number of robots might exceed the number of humans.

Next steps

All three Saudi mobile operators are planning to gradually expand their 5G equipped sites as part of the test & trial licenses throughout 2018 and 2019 in anticipation of full nationwide commercial launch when the first batch of fully 5G capable consumer devices should hit the market by middle of 2019.

Following the successful pilots, Saudi Operators will continue to work closely with all three major equipment suppliers: Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei to be part of the 5G rollout in major cities.

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Furthermore, they are working closely with Customer Premises Equipment suppliers to ensure that their customers will be the first to witness 5G’s innovative capabilities. The aim is to roll out 5G services first in 3GPP Bands 42 and 43, using carrier bandwidth of 100 MHz and possibly 200 MHz in the future.

The CITC is set to convert the test & trial licenses to full and exclusive 5G spectrum awards in 3.4-3.8 GHz by mid-2019. The awards of mm-wave spectrum may follow by beginning of 2020 taking into account the decisions of ITU’s WRC-19 on the subject and availability of equipment on the market.