Saudi Arabia is rapidly moving up the Ookla global broadband speed rankings

5G network densification drives Saudi performance

Saudi Arabia is now the eighth-best country in the world for network speed, and its rapid ascendancy is all thanks to the astute investment made by its telcos, according to a market report by Ookla’s lead analyst Mark Giles. The early allocation of key spectrum bands for 5G use and strong investment by network operators have helped Saudi Arabia’s telecom firms leap from 46th to 8th place in the global broadband league table. Figures compiled for Ookla’s Speedtest Global Index show the Kingdom moving from 46th place in January 2019 with a median download speed of 22.14 Mbps to 8th place in July 2022 at 96.23 Mbps. 5g in saudi arabia

The first commercial 5G network was launched in Saudi Arabia in October 2019. Since then the competition has intensified and accelerated in the last year. n the latest lap the Saudi Telecom Company (STC), led on 5G base stations (based on reported data), with 6,506 nationally as of December 2021, representing a density of around 5,400 people per 5G base station, putting it on par with operators such as NTT DoCoMo and Deutsche Telekom.

Chart showing adaptive average bitrate in Saudi Arabia by operators

In September STC reported how the kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s biggest mobile operator had increased its capital to 50 billion Saudi riyals (€13.31bn) to fund local and regional growth. The investment was aimed to help STC seize unprecedented growth opportunities in the telecoms and technology sectors in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 strategy 5g in saudi arabia

The Kingdom’s mobile operators are playing a central  Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 strategy, by which it aims to steer its economy away from dependence on oil. Technology is a central plank of Riyadh’s economic diversification agenda, with the kingdom projected to spend about $33bn on ICT development in 2022, according to analyst IDC. The Saudi sovereign wealth Public Investment Fund (PIF) has a 64% stake in STC which recently revealed a 492 million-riyal (€131 million) deal with PIF to set up an Internet of Things (IoT) joint venture.

In Saudi Arabia as a whole 5G availability, measured by the percentage of users with 5G-capable devices who spent a majority of time connected to 5G networks, hit 25% at the end of 2021, supported by the network densification efforts of the nation’s three mobile network operators.

Religious faith helped in this instance. The Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) announced full ICT readiness for the Hajj in late June.

Hajj represents a unique challenge for mobile networks

Hajj takes place over a set number of days each year, in specific locations in and around the city of Mecca. It represents a unique demand on telecom networks, considering the number of visitors and their movement and congregation around various locations integral to the pilgrimage. For example, the journey from Mina to Arafat is 13 km and is undertaken by foot, while pilgrims also congregate in locations such as the Masjid al-Haram mosque in Mecca on the final day. Pilgrims attending the Hajj typically use mobile networks to keep in touch with family and relatives at home and to document their pilgrimage. With a million people in attendance, the build up to the Hajj and ensuring sufficient network infrastructure is in place has become a major project.

chart comparing 5G performance during Hajj, 2019 vs. 2022

The CITC works with network operators in the region to ensure sufficient network coverage and capacity before Hajj, while also monitoring performance metrics during Hajj. CITC also developed business continuity and recovery plans to ensure the continuity of telecom and ICT services for pilgrims.

Operators have sought to densify their networks around Mecca and locations specific to the Hajj, with over 5,900 mobile towers operational, including 2,600 5G towers, 41% more than in 2021. Given the million pilgrims in attendance in 2022, this equates to a maximum density of 385 people per base station (assuming operators have located equipment on each tower). Operators have also installed over 11,000 Wi-Fi access points, with pilgrims offered two hours of free access per day.

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