The Middle East's critical comms market

The Middle East is a hugely important market for the critical communications sector, given its appetite for the latest technology. But how has the region been faring recently? Sam Fenwick investigates

Humanity has always been an industrious species, and perhaps there is no place in the world where this is so apparent as the great cities of the Middle East, where giant constructions of steel and glass burst from the dry desert floor like huge mushrooms after a deluge. In such a place, it’s little wonder that there is a strong desire to embrace the newest and most innovative technologies.

“If you were to step off a plane or come to either Dubai or Riyadh, you’ll see that the region is pioneering the use of advanced technologies especially when it comes to e-commerce, smart cities, innovative energy and transportation solutions, much more so than in Europe,” says Andrew Forbes, head of Middle East North Africa region for Secure Land Communications of Airbus, who has spent the past five and a half years in the Middle East. “Cities are growing quickly and you can almost see the rate of progress in the billboards and the signs as you drive around. These technologies are making citizens’ lives easier and they’re adding a level of complexity that the mission-critical professionals, the firefighters and the police who support them want as well.”

He gives an example of one such application of digital technology: “When you arrive in Saudi Arabia to start work in the Kingdom you are photographed at airport passport control. This photo is then used for your resident’s ID and driving licence, with the various government agencies being interconnected digitally. Electronic
gates are speeding up the entry and exit process.”

However, despite this energy and its apparent appetite for new technologies, the region has seen a bit of a lull in terms of mission-critical broadband, as Peter Clemons, founder of Quixoticity and global advisor to Genaker, explains. “Following Qatar MoI’s early deployment of a private LTE network back in 2011/12, there was a lot of activity in the region from other leading markets [in the Middle East] such as UAE and KSA (the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) either to assign frequencies for private/public safety LTE or encourage studies into its viability. Pilots/early contracts followed in 2016/17, but no widespread deployments have since been announced. However, following the maturing of global MCPTT/MCX standards, there is now a renewed effort to bring public safety communications into the broadband era with more integrated hybrid commercial/private, narrowband/broadband solutions.”

Karl Whyte, Sepura’s managing director – Middle East, says that typically the organisations that have fleets of broadband devices still also have their employees or officers carry TETRA devices as well, so the use of broadband by critical communications users has yet to really impact the TETRA market.

That said, he adds there is “probably no discussion in the critical communication world any more that does not refer in some form to LTE”, and the Middle East’s end-user organisation and governments are “thinking ‘should we go for it, how do we implement it, what are its limitations, is it fit for purpose, is it worth the investment in money, is it worth the considerable investment in time and the deep dedication required to plan its design and deployment?’”.

Experience and convergence
Part of the interest in mission-critical broadband is stemming from users’ experience with their consumer smartphones altering their expectations. “Public safety organisations’ staff are used to and expect the features that they get from mobile phones, so having to use devices that may be a better fit for [their professional requirements] overall but don’t deliver the same data experience people are used to [once they clock off] is becoming frustrating for some users, so there’s certainly some movement within public safety to embrace the technologies that can get you closer to that ease of exchange of information,” Whyte says, before highlighting Sepura’s work in this regard with AppSPACE (see our recent visit to Sepura's HQ).

Airbus’s Forbes highlights the clear convergence that has taken place between the IT and communications sectors in most of the large Middle Eastern markets, together with the growing security demands from cities and urban areas and the pressure for them to become smart and safe cities. “Through the Internet of Things (IoT), things are becoming more connected. People’s demands are growing and evolving quickly and they want to be connected on a permanent basis to those capabilities – these changes [also] apply to the professionals like the police and the fire service as well. And data and messaging are becoming more important or equally as important as voice alone,” he adds.

“Agencies in forward-looking cities such as Dubai have been embracing new working practices and better ways of interacting with the public,” says Clemons. “One of the real advantages of moving away from closed solutions to more open ones is the opportunity to develop new, more effective operational models, although security must never be compromised.”

Forbes says: “ The region is very advanced in terms of homeland security and communication technologies. It is home to some of the most advanced smart cities. As a matter of fact, the region as a whole is pushing towards extremely integrated and innovative solutions. To demonstrate this, some of our key innovations and latest products were actually born and developed together with our customers in the region – like Tactilon Dabat. The region is a trailblazer in many areas, and we are proud to be part of this evolution.”

He adds that Airbus, which has been active in the Middle East’s critical communications market since the 1970s, has seen its “revenues increased over the past couple of years”.

Market conditions
Now that we have got a feel for the major trends, let’s move on to current trading conditions. Clemons says: “It’s been a difficult last 12-18 months for many, but conditions appear to be improving as 2019 progresses. There appears to be a growing willingness to consider major investments as legacy systems begin to reach end of life.”

Sepura’s Whyte says his company has seen steady business from its regular customers “who still need to maintain and keep their critical communications fleet modern and up to date. We’ve also seen aggressive pricing from our competitors in some countries.” He adds that this tends to happen where there is strategic value in winning a particular project.

However, “the Middle East is not a market purely driven by price; business is also hugely influenced on whether you did it before, as promised, provided great after-sales service and given a customer an experience that gives them confidence and peace of mind in re-investing in you”.

Speaking of after-sales service, Whyte says customers expect service requests to be dealt with quickly “and we’ve adapted to suit that culture”, either through having a repair centre in the country in question or encouraging customers to have a buffer stock of terminals, so faults don’t result in downtime.

Turning back to mission-critical broadband, Quixoticity’s Clemons says it can’t be denied that it has taken longer than might have been expected for the region’s public safety agencies to embrace it. “Many agencies decided in 2017 to upgrade or renew their TETRA networks, while taking non-mission-critical broadband services from mobile operators. Clearly, Nedaa in Dubai has been leading the way, building a comprehensive 5G-ready network that is expected to be up and running ahead of next year’s Expo 2020. Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and others are looking at MCPTT/MCX solutions. KSA is steadily cleaning up valuable spectrum resources which should allow the deployment of advanced public safety LTE solutions quite soon as Saudi Vision 2030 modernisation efforts accelerate. The number of broadband trials has increased recently, so as agencies trial these new services with suppliers and network operators, decisions will be made regarding the precise model for next-generation services, with a wide range of hybrid solutions likely over the next five years.”

Whyte adds that mission-critical broadband “hovers over all decisions that are made regarding large critical communications system investments in the region – should organisations continue to invest in TETRA, take a plunge into the unknown with LTE for critical communications or wait until they’re sure that it’s fit for that purpose? It’s rapidly developing and hitting more and more milestones in its effort to fully [meet the requirements of critical communication users]. However, it’s not there yet.”

While Clemons says many TETRA networks in the region were upgraded around 2016/17 so are still relatively new, Sepura’s Whyte says “there’s considerable investment in building new or refreshing and upgrading existing systems, we’re working on projects in Iraq, Oman, Jordan, UAE that are currently – or have expressed interest in – upgrading their infrastructure, so people are still heavily investing further in TETRA”.

Regional scale
Airbus’s Forbes gives us a sense of the scale of the TETRA install base in the Middle East: Airbus “[has] implemented nationwide TETRA hybrid networks for the UAE’s police and army, while the Ministry of Interior and the defence ministries within Saudi Arabia all use Airbus technology and capabilities.

“[We have] equipped the majority of governments in the Middle East and North Africa [and supplied] narrow- and broadband technology to Kuwait, Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq and KSA. Airbus has also supplied some business-critical capabilities for places like Abu Dhabi, for the onshore petroleum operations in Saudi Arabia with Saudi Aramco. Airbus is also working with key operators such as Nedaa and STC Specialized (formerly Bravo). They have capabilities in a lot of the airports in the region, and in Dubai’s metro. In addition, a number of hotels and shopping malls in Dubai use Airbus communications technology to provide security and co-ordination for their staff.

“The Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix also uses Airbus SLC communications technology and currently we’re working on a number of large projects across the region with different entities and different sectors at the moment.”

Similarly Sepura’s Whyte says that his company “has a substantial deployment of products across the region, so a considerable amount of time is invested in supporting, upgrading and refreshing those fleets of radios that our customers use. We spend a lot of time and effort working to keep our customers satisfied, and though we might not always win every project, we tend
not to lose any existing customers to the competition.”

Whyte adds that some of his company’s data-based applications (for database and image queries and indoor location) are in use in the Middle East, but the take-up has not been as large as in Europe, where there is greater emphasis on increasing end-users’ efficiency. However, he adds that oil and gas companies in the region are using indoor location combined with geofencing to ensure that if a worker tries to enter an ATEX zone while using a non-ATEX two-way radio, the installation’s command
centre is immediately alerted, thereby boosting worker safety and compliance with company health and safety policies.

He adds that he has seen some body-worn video deployments, but not many. Some deployments have taken place within those organisations that are implementing LTE – “it makes decision-making for critical situations more precise if you can stream quality, content-rich data back to a control centre”, he says.

Our time together is nearly at an end, but before we go, Quixoticity’s Clemons has some final words: “After a couple of years of relative stagnation of the Middle East public safety communications market, change is definitely back in the air. Standards are ready, plans have matured, early deployments are showing the way to the rest and I’m very optimistic that the next 12 months will see significant progress.”

Heat and the Hajj
One of the most high-profile uses of TETRA in the Middle East is its role in ensuring the smooth running of the Hajj, the pilgrimage that takes place every year (the dates involved vary due to the use of the lunar calendar) in KSA over a period of six days, and the safety of the roughly 1.8 million pilgrims who undertake it each year. The TETRA network for the Hajj is operated by STC Specialized, and Airbus has been providing TETRA equipment for this purpose since 2017.

During this year’s Hajj, various security organisations used Airbus’s solutions, which include the slimline Th1n TETRA radio and Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) technology. These inform dispatchers of each mobile unit’s location, status and active TETRA talk groups. The information was then sent to all the relevant emergency personnel using the STC Specialized network (which uses TETRA equipment from Airbus), such as the Ministry of Hajj, the Ministry of Health, and the Mecca Municipality. The company’s solutions aided the monitoring of the Hajj, along with communication between ground staff and the control rooms.

It is worth noting that the work to ensure the health and safety of the Hajj’s pilgrims is expected to become more difficult, given the effects of climate change. During the Hajj, they spend roughly 20-30 hours outside in the open air, and a paper in the journal Geophysical Review Letters, by MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering Elfatih Eltahir and two others, states that risks to Hajj participants could have been serious this year and could be again next year, as well as when the Hajj takes place in the hottest summer months – from 2047 to 2052 and from 2079 to 2086. While a number of protective measures have been in place in recent years such as nozzles to spray mists of cooling water in some outdoor locations and the widening of some locations, Eltahir says that it in the riskiest years ahead it may be necessary to severely limit the number of pilgrims.