November: mobile network choice opens in the UAE

Subscribers who have been waiting for competition to be introduced into the UAE mobile market need wait no longer, it seems. Despite years elapsing since talks began, regulator TRA is set to launch mobile number portability (MNP) in November, allowing users that have subscribed for a minimum of one year to services from du or etisalat to retain their number when switching networks. Although this development undoubtedly offers greater choice to residents and contractors in the UAE, is it choice enough?

The introduction of MNP in other countries recently, such as India, should provide a vibrant market with price reductions hastened by competition between over ten mobile operators, as it has in many other markets that have opened up mobile numbers. However, this might not be the case in UAE, where some commentators consider the market a duopoly. Another market entrant in addition to du would boost competition, there's no doubt, but both the existing operators have been trying to boost the number of services and devices available to consumers beyond just MNP.

Du has been bullish by lobbying to have the fixed line market opened up - a position which would suit it better rather than etisalat. Its success here will depend on rulings from the TRA and also its ability to come to a deal with etisalat to access its network - and for etisalat to have reciprocal access. At the device level, Du turned the wick up on competition for subscribers recently, announcing a deal with Apple to offer the iPhone and posing a threat to etisalat's current domination of the iPhone market in the UAE. Du has also launched a raft of new services recently aimed at tariff reductions for the business community. Etisalat on the other hand is placing emphasis on its brand, launching its first own-branded handset, and plans to continue pushing its brand recognition in the UAE. And it needs to, since it has been steadily losing market share to du since the newcomer's launch in 2006.

At the beginning of 2009, etisalat had about 7.3 million subscribers according to the ITU, taking its market share down from 77% down to 74%. By comparison, du had gown its subscriber base by a million to just over three million by the end of 2008. However, etisalat predicted a rise in annual net income to US$2.5 billion at the close of that year, suggesting that although it has lost subscribers, it was doing a good job of cutting costs and increasing ARPU. Etisalat's apparent successes here in countering completion from du indicates that the UAE will be an interesting market to watch as MNP evolves in the coming months.

Nicolas Jacquey
Simon Marshall