Free Internet Access in Middle East

Isn’t access to the internet expensive in the Middle East? …I have to walk all the way to the end of the mall to get free wifi… Why don’t we have more wifi zones within the city?

These are some of the questions and comments one gets to hair fairly regularly if you are a resident of the Middle East. The BCG Global e-Intensity Index, carried out in September last year, ranked the UAE 26th out of 50 countries in terms of internet enablement, expenditure and engagement.Saudi Arabia was the 39th while Egypt took the 49th position. Amongst the group were major players like the US,UK,South Korea,Sweden,Denmark and Hong Kong. These results show a lot about the focus and penetration of internet around the world.

The region is facing an influx of tourism.Dubai airport just announced its busiest first half throughout its history (28 million passengers passed through the airport from Jan-Jun 2012). As the region moves towards positioning itself as one of the most forward looking area in the world, the availability of low cost and instantly accessible internet would play a major role in strengthening its standing on the Global Internet Map. Though there have been advances made by the operators and the government in terms of enabling Wifi hot spots on major customer traffic areas like the Metro, malls and coffee franchises to name a few, the region still has a long distance to cover to match the level of other countries.

I went around and did a quick survey to figure out the major issues people face while accessing the internet outside their houses. The primary concern has been around availability itself. Not all venues have the requisite wifi facility nor the infrastructure to provide the service. Venues that have both charge a high premium for access. For instance if you walk into your local Starbucks inDubai, you have to pay a fee to access the wifi. Another coffee chain Caribou coffee gives you a free voucher for wifi access valid for an hour after you order. This ‘gesture’ does go down well with customers. Not sure if its a tipping point in terms of getting it more customers though.

It is this very element of getting access to Free internet when you avail a service from an outlet, that has given rise to a new culture in many countries. I was recently in Greece for my holidays. Every cafe and restaurant in the nook and corner of the popular Greek islands had free wifi for its customers. So if you ordered a coffee you had wifi. You sampled a waffle and you had wifi. And better still, people were posting pictures, tweeting about the venue and their vacations and commenting on the food. Free advertising I must say!

With access to the internet comparatively still over priced in the Middle East, it is essential that the government and operators work together to enable wider access. This must happen through a two pronged approach with an improved infrastructure and lower pricing.

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