Superfast broadband may help make Qatar new tech hub
- 7 June 2011
- From the section Business
The beach at al-Khor is no place for holiday makers.
The landscape is barren, and a burning wind whips up sand into a dust storm that hits you at well over 40 degrees.
But this rather uninviting patch of shoreline is actually the scene for something of a technological revolution.
Because it is here where Qatar's brand new fibre optic cable emerges from the waters of the Gulf and comes to shore, before being beamed out to homes and businesses across the country.
The cable will give consumers here eye-watering connection speeds that may eventually reach 10G per second - hundreds of times faster than the rather paltry speeds on offer today.
In short, Qatar is about to join the digital Premier League.
Like many Gulf states, Qatar is a country in transition.
Thanks to huge gas reserves, it has grown fabulously rich, but the government wants to diversify and build a knowledge-based economy instead.
So Qatar is ploughing billions into investing in education and research, and no more so than in the field of technology.
But the government knows that to compete with other heavyweights around the world, it needs an information superhighway.
The cable will go live in September, and excitement is already building.
"This is the last piece of the puzzle," says Khalifa Haroon, one of Qatar's most well-known web entrepreneurs and founder of the popular website ILoveQatar.net.
"Arabs are very social people. We love to go onto social websites. We love the latest technology and we carry multiple devices, so it seems natural that we need super-fast internet - and that's exactly what we're going to get."
Qataris are notorious for their love of gadgets.
Any self-respecting young Qatari will carry at least two mobile phones - often three - and, with a GDP per capita of more than $100,000, locals can afford to upgrade pretty much whenever they want.
And although internet speeds in the country are notoriously slow, seven out of 10 people are already hooked up to broadband.
The government now wants to increase this even further, and is currently installing a nationwide "Fibre To The Home" network.
The aim is for 95% of the country to have broadband access by 2015.
"If you consider what we have right now as Network 1.0, this is going to take us to Network 3.0," says Bassam Al-Ibrahim, another of the country's leading net entrepreneurs and a co-founder of ILoveQatar.net.
"Having the whole country broadband-connected is going to take Qatar beyond the levels our forefathers could have dreamt of.
"It's like jumping from a horse and getting straight into a Ferrari."
While it is good to have fantastic internet access, the key will be persuading Qataris to become producers of original web content, rather than just more efficient consumers.
This requires innovation - which no amount of money can buy. But people here are confident the young generation will step up to the challenge.
"It's a domino effect," says Khalifa Haroon.
"People are going to start using the internet even more, which hopefully means they are going to start creating their own little pages on the internet.
"Once people start creating their own pages that means more people will start to compete with each other, and people will start to realise the business opportunities behind creating original content."
And it is not only Qatar that will benefit from the new fibre optic cable.
The network will also connect to all the countries in the Gulf, meaning Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Iran could all enjoy a similar step-change in their internet services.
Catalyst for growth
It was during an evening with friends several years ago when telecoms guru Ahmed Mekky, chief executive of Gulf Bridge International, came up with the idea to build a new fibre optic cable for the region, sketching out his initial idea on a scrap of paper.
Today, after securing $445m to build the network, Mr Mekky has seen his dream become reality.
"Demand for capacity is growing exponentially," he says.
"This region is hungry for expansion and hungry for connectivity. This is critical infrastructure, and will serve as a catalyst for growth.
"There are so many sectors - education, healthcare, banking, airlines - which all depend increasingly on real-time applications, and this is what our network will enable them to run."
There is no doubt the country's economy will benefit from better connectivity.
But it is not all about making money.
Technology is also being used here in Qatar to bring about social change.
MADA, a new centre for assistive technology, helps those with disabilies get online and access a myriad of web-based tools.
"The internet gives people with disabilities access to a whole wider world that would otherwise be so easily denied to them", says David Banes, deputy chief executive at MADA.
"We're starting to see the advent of e-learning - the ability to learn anywhere, anytime.
"E-learning is incredibly useful for the disabled because it's allows them to access information in whatever format they want, but more widely e-learning is also going to help Qatar's transition to a knowledge-based society."
Fatima Abusharida, who is blind and uses braille technology to get online, says having access to the web has changed her life.
"I feel alive now," says Fatima, a braille teacher.
"If I don't have this assistive technology, how can I connect with people, how can I contact them? It did a lot for me."
For Fatima, the net has obviously transformed her life, but the broader benefit of better connectivity is the ability to share knowledge, instantly, with a global audience.
"This superfast connection will help us influence development beyond Qatar, by helping us collaborate with the rest of the world," says David Banes.
"Technology is not just about connecting with the internet. Ultimately it's about connecting with people and knowledge."
But beyond Qatar, it is about a shift in power, too.
There is no doubt the Middle East is a major global force in terms of financial muscle, but it is light-years away from providing serious competition for the West and Asia in terms of technology, research and connectivity.
A proper fibre optic connection should help change that.
"We want to be one of the world's superpowers," says Ahmed Mekky boldly.
"We deserve to be in that position, and we have the qualifications, we just need to work."