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Recent improvements in Gulf countries' fiber coverage and adoption have resulted in faster and more affordable internet services. This positive development reflects their commitment to enhancing the digital experience for residents. However, a significant challenge remains: the prevalent use of outdated Wi-Fi 4 standards in home networks. This legacy technology limits the full utilization of high-speed broadband, with over one-third of users still relying on it as of Q2 2023. As a result, many customers are unable to experience the full potential of their fixed broadband connections.

Modern Wi-Fi Standards Boost Internet Speeds

In Q2 2023, a significant speed difference was observed for users in the Gulf region who upgraded to modern Wi-Fi standards. Customers using Wi-Fi 5 enjoyed a median download speed over five times faster than those stuck with Wi-Fi 4. Similarly, Wi-Fi 6 outperformed Wi-Fi 5, providing an average speed boost of 1.2 times. As most Gulf fixed broadband subscribers utilize fiber services, those with Wi-Fi 4 routers stand to gain the most from upgrading their Customer Premise Equipment (CPE).

To ensure customers fully benefit from these advancements, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should take steps to ensure that routers and smartphones are configured correctly. Even when consumers have modern devices, they may inadvertently be using Wi-Fi 4 due to misconfigurations and coverage issues. ISPs can play a crucial role in educating consumers on proper router setup and offering solutions to optimize indoor connectivity, particularly by utilizing the more efficient 5 GHz spectrum band.

Gulf Countries Rise in Fixed Broadband Rankings

Since 2020, most Gulf countries have significantly improved their global fixed broadband speed standings. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has emerged as the leader in fiber coverage and adoption within the Middle East.

Local Internet Service Providers, in collaboration with government support, have expedited fiber network expansion to meet the surging demand for data services. This effort aligns with national broadband development strategies aimed at ensuring widespread access to high-speed internet. Notably, in September 2022, the UAE claimed the top spot in global fiber household coverage, reaching an impressive 98.1%, maintaining its position since 2016. Qatar closely followed in second place with 97.8% coverage.

These GCC nations outperformed their global counterparts, including Singapore (96.5%), Hong Kong (91.6%) and China (89.4%). Meanwhile, Bahrain recorded over 88% of households connected to fiber infrastructure, with Saudi Arabia exceeding 60% coverage and Oman reaching 52%.

Gulf Countries’ Internet Speed Rankings Soar

In the rapidly evolving landscape of internet speeds in the Gulf region, notable advancements have been recorded in Q2 2023. According to the latest data, the UAE stands at the forefront with a remarkable median download speed of 236.67 Mbps, doubling since Q2 2022. Meanwhile, Bahrain's progress is equally impressive, achieving a median download speed of 70.17 Mbps, signifying a 46% year-on-year increase.

Significant strides have also been made in upload speeds, with Oman and Qatar experiencing notable gains of 61% and 40%, respectively, reaching speeds of 29.27 Mbps and 73.21 Mbps. However, Bahrain takes the lead in median upload speed growth, doubling from Q2 2022 to Q2 2023 and now standing at 20.37 Mbps.

These achievements have propelled most Gulf countries up the rankings in the global internet speed index. Notably, the UAE secured the second spot for median download speeds over fixed broadband in June 2023, while other GCC nations also improved their positions, although they trailed behind the UAE.

Additionally, regulatory policies have played a pivotal role in stimulating competition, raising minimum broadband speeds, and reducing tariffs. For instance, in April 2023, Bahrain's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) approved an initiative by BNET to double the speed of entry-level fiber packages while maintaining competitive wholesale prices. In the UAE, providers like Etisalat and du responded to market demands by increasing minimum download speeds to 500 Mbps and offering discounts on higher-tier fiber plans in 2022.

Wi-Fi Standards Influence Fiber Network Performance

The prevalence of Wi-Fi 4 continues to impact the full potential of fiber networks in the region. The choice of Wi-Fi standards and spectrum bands plays a pivotal role in determining the quality of connectivity, throughput, and network coverage.

In comparison to the outdated Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) standard, Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) offers a significant boost in maximum theoretical throughput speed, reaching up to 3.5 Gbps. The latest Wi-Fi 6/6E (802.11ax) standard takes it even further, supporting maximum data rates of up to 9.6 Gbps and lower latency. This generation also harnesses the combined power of 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz spectrum bands, along with wider channels, to enhance throughput and reduce interference. However, it's important to note that real-life speeds often fall below these theoretical limits due to factors like signal attenuation, interference, and variations in the hardware and software of connected devices.

For a closer look at the impact of Wi-Fi standards on wired broadband customers, our analysis focuses on the most widely penetrated fiber markets in the region: Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. We gauge the adoption of Wi-Fi standards and frequency bands by examining the percentage of samples used when connecting to CPE. This approach helps us assess the performance of fiber services, given that fiber comprises the majority of fixed broadband connections in these four markets.

Wi-Fi Standard Choice Impacts Network Outcomes

Most of the findings reveal that over one-third of test samples indicated the use of Wi-Fi 4 when connecting to fixed CPE. However, this trend varies notably by country, with Bahrain having the highest prevalence of Wi-Fi 4 usage and the lowest adoption of Wi-Fi 6. Notably, in the UAE, Wi-Fi 4 usage (30.8%) surpasses Wi-Fi 6 (17.2%) as of Q2 2023. This suggests that Internet Service Providers have an opportunity to enhance network experiences for a significant portion of their customer base and potentially secure a higher ranking in the speed leaderboard by addressing CPE speed limitations.

The distribution of Wi-Fi standard usage is largely similar between the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Despite Saudi ISPs offering a minimum broadband speed of 100 Mbps, the data indicates a median download speed of 93.85 Mbps in Q2 2023. This suggests that many customers might still be using legacy, lower-speed plans. However, the more likely scenario is that home Wi-Fi CPEs are the bottleneck limiting speeds within users' homes.

Consumer-initiated speed tests confirm that the choice of Wi-Fi standard has a substantial impact on the network speed experience.

Despite the impressive growth of fiber infrastructure and faster broadband services among Gulf-based ISPs, a significant number of subscribers might not reap the benefits of such improvements due to the prevalence of Wi-Fi 4. To address this issue, ISPs should prioritize the migration of existing customers with outdated routers to more modern ones, which already come with a minimum fiber speed of 250 Mbps. Additionally, educating customers with newer routers on proper configuration is crucial. Introducing newer CPE will not only enhance the end-user experience but also elevate the region's speed rankings globally and ensure the longevity of routers amidst the growing demand for gigabit-speed connections.

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