The Middle East is keeping pace with global shifts in content delivery and broadcast technology and is even leading the pack on some fronts. DPme.com looks at ten of the most innovative and noteworthy projects in the region that are creating new revenue streams for the content delivery industry, enabling new services and protecting its future.
The content delivery industries in the Middle East have come along way in a very short time. Three satellite pay TV operators and the ever expanding FTA market were more or less the sum total just a few years ago.
Today, the region has broadcast services on three screens; mobile, PC and television. There are increasing numbers of Fiber to the home (FTTH) roll-outs, presenting new opportunities for two-way delivery networks. On-demand programming and digital content delivery services have flourished and the region’s first PVR boxes have been rolled out by pay TV operators.
These new services often depend on new network infrastructures tying the fates of the telecommunication and broadcast industries. This scenario has been seen in the region on several levels and in many forms.
Satellite service operators and network infrastructure providers are benefiting from the broadcast boom, telcos are offering TV services – often via their own branded platforms – and the internet is becoming a key source of legitimate, rights protected content.
Digital Broadcast offers the following 10 examples of broadcast innovation not as a quantified like-for-like comparison, but to demonstrate the breadth and diversity of the advances that have been made in the region. Technology is not the sole criteria for the entries. The development of untested business plans, public service provision, scale, pioneering network architectures and more have been considered alongside the underlying technology that enables them.
Unfortunately, there are more worthy projects than can be mentioned in this article. In cases where numerous similar projects have occurred at the same time, the example that is likely to have the widest impact moving forward, have won out. New platforms feature prominently however these have been judged on function and paths to monetisation, rather than novelty value.
Nokia brings global music strategy to the Middle East
The Nokia online music store, which launched in December 2008, is perhaps the most high-profile legitimate online content portal available in the Middle East.
Although only currently accessible in the UAE, Nokia has signalled its intentions to expand the service’s availability into other markets.
The platform is one of 12 around the world with the same user interface and styling with content tailored for each repsective market.
With most of the other portals based in Europe, the initialisation of the UAE store is an indication that the major players in the industry now view the region as a feasible market. Just a few years ago, the extent of piracy activity in the UAE would have rendered such an initiative doomed from the outset.
Nokia is the first international content aggregator to establish such a service in the region. Over the coming years it is likely that more regional media companies will feel confident enough to follow suit, creating a vibrant digital content marketplace.
This will be all the more likely as broadband penetration levels rise. The early move by Nokia will help to improve its case as the default provider of digital music when broadband reaches critical mass.
Nokia has also refused to rule out the possibility of launching its ‘Comes with Music’ unlimited download service in the region as early as this year. ‘Comes with Music’ offers 12 months of free music downloads with certain Nokia handset purchases.
Yahsat facilitates the Middle East’s ‘net generation’
Abu Dhabi government backed satellite company Yahsat may not have launched any of its proposed satellites as of yet, however it has developed a service that will drastically improve the entire Middle East’s access to the internet. With content and advertising revenues both migrating to online sources, increasing broadband penetration across the region is key to enabling a future generation of media consumers.
YahClick will offer satellite based broadband access across the MEA region for individual consumers and enterprises alike.
“It will be available through Y1B, Yahsat’s second satellite set for launch in mid 2011,” says Shawkat Ahmed, CCO, Yahsat.
“The service has been developed to address the gap in the broadband internet supply in the region. We are seeing growing demand for broadband internet driven by emerging applications such as YouTube, IP video services and the fact that dial-up can’t handle rich web content.”
Yahsat will use a Ka-band multi-spot beam with reusable frequencies to maximise this scarce resource, a technology only recently introduced in the US.
“The multi spot-beam technology means greater efficiency on the ground, which enables use of a smaller antenna size with a low power amplifier. The ability to re-use frequencies will enable faster, reliable and affordable broadband to urban and remote areas of the region.”
Broadband is currently limited to the main urban centres throughout the Middle East limiting penetration rates.
Yahsat will manage both the satellite and ground infrastructure with service partners focusing on customer acquisition and support.
“The YahClick business model has been well received by potential service partners. They will bundle hardware and software services, offering packages tailor-made for specific markets. User terminals will range between US $350 to $400 and service plans will start at $30. There will also be plans for more demanding consumers and enterprise.”
BBC Arabic unifies output and expands across platforms
The BBC Arabic service has grown rapidly of late and now includes various mobile offerings available in an increasing number of markets in the Middle East and beyond, a redesigned website with video and audio content and a 24-hour TV news channel.
“We believe that our audiences in the Arab world should be getting a consistent stream of content on all our platforms,” says Hosam El Sokkari, head of BBC Arabic. “Our teams work collaboratively to make sure that each platform is used to its full capacity.”
El Sokkari points out that BBC Arabic is currently providing 72 hours of news content across three separate platforms and has also recently expanded its WAP platform.
“We have made sure that several providers in the region have added it to their landing page to offer easy access for their users. This has led to four and sometimes five-fold increases in the number of page impressions generated on this platform,” claims El Sokkari. “In addition to this we recently launched a news video bulletin for mobile devices. It is currently offered by an operator in Saudi and we are working to forge more partnerships.”
El Sokkari identifies the extension of the TV channel to a 24-hour operation as a key development for BBC Arabic.
“The launch of BBC Arabic TV has received a positive and encouraging response from the Arab world. BBC Arabic journalists are maintaining on TV the same editorial values associated with our radio and online operations for the past seven decades,” adds El Sokkari.
Arab Media Group invests for the long term
The region now has a well-documented collection of media free zones and production cities with more planned in Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the coming years.
The advertised benefits of operating from these industry clusters generally include relaxation of certain labour laws and the convenience of being surrounded by potential partners and related service providers.
Moving operations to one of these dedicated centres also provides the opportunity to design and build the infrastructure required from the ground up, and in line with broader commercial strategies.
The Arab Media Group (AMG) portfolio includes newspapers, magazines, radio stations and TV channels based in several locations across Dubai. The network scored a major publicity boost for the entire region with the launch of MTV and Nickelodeon franchises. These drew international attention to the health of the region’s progressive media scene as a whole.
To support these launches, ATN moved into a new facility at Dubai Studio City (DSC) and has embraced the opportunity to operate from the free zone, with four of the group’s radio stations also relocating to DSC.
The company is currently leasing space in DSC but has already begun designing a purpose built complex that will become its long-term home.
“We want to ensure that we have the best technology and the most state-of-the-art infrastructure to support our creative and technical staff,” says Abdullatif Al Sayegh, CEO, Arab Media Group.
The new facilities are ready to switch to HD as the transmission technology to support it in the region becomes operational. This demonstrates ATN’s long term planning and shows that a media free zone can offer substantial operational benefits above and beyond the plush office space and tax breaks that appear.
Abu Dhabi Media Company legitimises online content delivery
GETMO Arabia’s main credentials as an innovator come largely with the online content store’s business plan.
In recognition of the Middle East’s rampant piracy and counterfeiting activity, the Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC) chose to look for ways to reduce or even completely remove any cost for the consumer.
A network of commercial partners, typically well-known consumer brands, offer free credit for the GETMO store alongside purchases of their products. Fully subsidised content is also available, offset by the advertising and sponsorship revenues generated on the GETMO portal.
“Brand owners can see the value of their brand being bundled with content to stimulate and increase their market share. In return they are underwriting the cost for us to provide content to the consumer for free. It’s a win-win situation,” says Ricky Ghai, executive director, digital, ADMC.
The platform includes music, movies and mobile content such as wallpapers. Critically, all of this content is rights protected offering a legal – and often free – alternative to illegal P2P file sharing platforms.
At GITEX 2008, the platform announced a tie up with Samsung mobile connecting customers who purchase Samsung phones directly into the site.
GETMO is just one part of ADMC’s digital initiatives, which also include football portal GoalArabia.com and the online homes of ADMC’s stable of print and broadcast entities, such as UAE daily newspaper The National.
MBC and etisalat exploit bumper Ramadan audiences with dedicated online player
The region’s largest FTA TV network had a busy year and as usual, the Ramadan musalsals attracted the highest ratings. To further exploit this unique annual opportunity, MBC and UAE telco Etisalat created an internet TV portal to expand the reach of its nine most popular drama series.
The service was an extension of the online portal available in 2007 when the company launched its mobisodes offering with the UAE telco du. Popular comedy show Tash Ma Tash and other content was edited down into four minute packages optimised for mobile phones.
In both cases the content was offered free of charge with MBC happy to market its programming and drive traffic through its website and promote its brand while the respective telco partners see increased traffic and data usage in the case of the mobisodes as well as benefiting from the positive brand association.
Both operations show that the region is not merely talking about these platforms but is actively pursuing them.
“The success of the venture will hopefully offer new opportunities for our viewers to interact with our infotainment,” says Dr. Ammar Bakkar, head of New Media, MBC.
Saudi Arabia: Ministry of Culture and Information secures the nation’s film archive
While the value and importance of original and entertaining content production is undisputed, the contribution of archival footage cannot be underestimated. When these recordings represent the entire on-film collection of a country’s history and heritage, the archive is priceless.
Earlier this year the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI) took considerable steps to digitise 750,000 reels of 16mm and 35mm film.
Systems integrator Saudi technical Engineering Systems Associated (STESA) together with Thomson, NETIA and the French National Library of Radio and Television archives (INA) were given the task of implementing the technical infrastructure and workflow for the MOCI.
Thomson’s ContentShare2 media management and automation system have been installed to feed Thomson Grass Valley K2 media servers with NETIA providing tools for restoration, digitisation and preservation.
The deal for the project was signed in April 2008 and the system has now been fully implemented, according to a Thomson spokesperson.
The INA is supporting a team of 140 Saudi archivists which has already begun the process of digitising and indexing the material.
The MOCI hopes to have completed the entire process for all of the archive within the next two years.
S2M brings economy of scale to mobile TV broadcasting
The cost of building the new network infrastructure required to put a mobile TV service in place often proves prohibitive to mobile network operators. With many Middle East telecom operators working in a fragmented market and with the more profitable of these spread across the region, operators can often struggle to find an audience large enough to justify the initial outlay required.
S2M has developed a satellite/terrestrial network architecture, which it claims eliminates much of these costs and the risks associated with them.
“S2M’s hybrid digital broadcasting platform includes an S-band geostationary satellite operating in conjunction with a terrestrial repeater network,” explains Wejdi Harzallah, vice president of commercial operations, S2M Group.
“This platform is technically and commercially proven to deliver high quality video and audio while sharing the infrastructure between several countries thus substantially reducing the costs of deploying and operating the service.”
The repeater network is designed to boost signals in densely populated areas or where direct line of sight to the satellite is not possible.
“S2M will offer access to live broadcasts of 40 TV channels plus radio channels and interactive services on a variety of mobile devices covering a wide selection of brands and pricing structures.
There will be some free channels and other public service applications. Basic packages will start at less than US $10 per month for unlimited TV viewing,” says Harzallah.
Orange Jordan launches region’s first true IPTV service
There is much talk about the benefits of IPTV; the increased returns from targeted advertising; the marketing feedback that can be acquired from a two-way network; the increased functionality and services that can be offered. Despite all of this however, there is only one IPTV service in the Middle East, ‘TV from Orange’, in Jordan.
While many people may be receiving TV by IP, it is a stretch to consider these offerings as IPTV services.
While Hong Kong’s PCCW was once viewed as the IPTV pioneer, Orange’s ‘TV from Orange’ service offering in its domestic French market is now the world’s largest.
According to some sources, TV from Orange now has 2.3 million subscribers in France and has been rolled out in several other markets.
Not least of these is Jordan, where the Jordan Telecom Group, under the Orange brand, launched the Middle East’s first IPTV service. The TV from Orange service has been operational for almost six months. The premium package (priced at around $35 per month) offers 25 channels plus many of the benefits that cannot be provided by satellite DTH services. These benefits include initiating user profiles to offer a degree of parental control and a VOD platform offers movies and films for just over $2.
“The launch of the service was a response to Orange’s understanding of the needs of the telecommunications market and keeps us up to date with the international trends,” Mickael Ghossein, CEO, Jordan Telecom Group.
Combining internet, voice and TV services has proven lucrative in other markets. In the UK, dominant broadband supplier BT has attracted almost 400,000 subscribers to it’s BT Vision IPTV service and pay TV leader BSkyB is fast approaching two million broadband subscribers.
Triple-play packages are nothing new for the region and are available in several markets, however the additional revenue streams that IPTV offers and the potential to offer marketers targeted advertising marks out the Jordan Orange package for particular recognition.
Qtel on the brink of national DVB-H mobile tv launch
Although the accolade of being region’s first commercial DVB-H service may now be snatched from under their noses by the Mobision platform in Iraq, Qtel’s own mobile TV offering expected later in 2009 will still be highly significant.
As well as being a larger network than proposed by Mobision, the Qtel roll-out will also crown a sustained period of research and development into mobile TV, regardless of platform, by the operator.
Qtel has pursued TV services based on its 3G network more aggressively than many of its rivals recently expanding it’s offering to 23 channels and developing subscription by SMS. The company invested more than $60 million at the end of 2008 to upgrade its 2G and 3G network infrastructure to double the network’s capacity.