Telcos and the Arab Spring

As Qatar makes remarkable progress in broadband infrastructure, it is unfortunate to see large chunks of the developing world falling behind growth states such as China, and nations woken by the Arab Spring.

My second trip to Qatar in March 2012 gave me a similar experience to the ones I have when I travelled to China with annual or bi-annual intervals.

Things had changed in a remarkable way. There are new buildings with the most amazing architecture, many of them artwork in their own way, new roads, new infrastructure and more and more people connected to FttH. The neighbouring UAE with its well-known capital, Dubai, is now the second-ranked FttH country in the world, with penetration above 50 per cent.

Qatar will have all of its 220,000 homes and business linked to FttH by 2015. Saudi Arabia is also one of the fastest-growing FttH countries in the world. Overall FttH growth in the region stands at 34 per cent per annum. The Arab Spring is seen by many of the governments in the region as a wake-up call for social and economic reforms and governments at the Arab Summit were urged by the Emir of Qatar and others to use ICT to address some of these issues.

While spectacular developments are taking place in the Gulf States, the so-called developed world has been arguing for years – indeed decades – carrying out cost benefit analyses for infrastructure, generating plans and just as quickly abandoning them, wasting hundreds of millions in consultancy fees. There has been endless and ridiculous squabbling about whether it is really necessary to deploy FttH networks, and arguments about whether the government should step out of the way and let business do all of the heavy lifting.

It is sad to see large chunks of the developed world falling so far behind in comparison with growth regions such as China, parts of Southeast Asia and the Gulf States. Visiting New York, for example, and many other American cities is becoming more depressing every year, with its crumbling infrastructure, its dilapidated, drab-looking suburbs and half-empty former manufacturing cities.

Rob Parkes from Alcatel Lucent made a great comment: "There is no business case for quality of life."

There is a great deal of scepticism in the world regarding many of the government systems in the region and the Arab Spring has brought this message home – and not just to this region – similar protests are taking place in Greece, Spain, Russia, the USA and so on. The current economic crisis in many parts of the western world also raises questions about the government systems in these countries.

So it becomes clear that other systems also have a role to play in world developments. The Arab Spring has brought its own message down to the region and it was refreshing to see that the Emir, as well as other heads of state (Sudan, Djibouti, Comores, Lebanon) and senior ministers from Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan frequently referred to the Arab Spring as an urgent wake-up call about the need for social and economic change, particular aimed at the younger population.

The power of communications in these world events was also frequently mentioned, and often specifically linked to the need for better engagement with young people. The Secretary-General of the ITU, Dr Hamadoun Tour, went so far as to say that if the governments were unable to start delivering jobs to the youth of this region (60 per cent of the population is under the age of 30) there could be further uprisings. Obviously ICT was put forward as a key enabler in the context of this summit, in terms of creating new jobs and stimulating young entrepreneurship. Tour urged the Arab leaders to think about what needs to be done to help these young people exercise their right to be good citizens, and to work.

Secretary-General of the Arab League Nabil Elaraby also had a very strong message in relation to the changes needed in the wake of the Arab Spring. He observed that this was the first Arab Summit to take place within the context of the Arab Spring and that countries have to develop a knowledge-based society in order to facilitate jobs and the lifestyle expected by its younger generations. These changes are driven by people and are unstoppable. He also repeated messages from the other leaders – that infrastructure developments were crucial, and also the humanisation of the internet, aimed at increasing human involvement.

Paul Budde is the managing director of BuddeComm, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy company, which includes 45 national and international researchers in 15 countries.