Saudi 5G Is Fast, and New Spectrum Allocations Should Make it Faster
Saudi Arabia has a new plan to allocate or improve 23 GHz of spectrum to boost 5G speeds and coverage and potentially best other countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), This region has been ahead of the 5G curve since early days with Qatar launching commercially available 5G in 2018 and Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates following soon after in 2019.
It’s good company to be in, but having such technologically advanced neighbors can obscure the progress Saudi Arabia has made and how well the country is doing compared with the world. This article looks at mobile speeds and 5G adoption in GCC countries and then closely examines Saudi mobile performance, including information on fastest providers, time spent on 5G and how the new spectrum could improve performance.
UAE has fastest mobile speeds in GCC, Saudi Arabia third
There was a wide range of median mobile speeds across the GCC over the past year, despite 5G presence in nearly all of the countries. United Arab Emirates (UAE) consistently had the fastest median download speed over mobile, with 100.99 Mbps during Q1 2021. Qatar was second with 90.92 Mbps during Q1 2021 and Saudi Arabia was third (67.61 Mbps). Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain formed a tight group at the bottom of the rankings with median download speeds of 42.52 Mbps, 37.52 Mbps and 36.76 Mbps, respectively, during Q1 2021. Of these countries, only Oman did not have commercially-available 5G until 2021.
Kuwait showed the largest increase in median download speed among GCC countries when comparing Q1 2020 to Q1 2021 at 84.0%. UAE saw the second largest increase (61.6%), Saudi Arabia third (48.2%), Qatar fourth (53.2%), Bahrain fifth (43.8%) and Oman sixth (21.6%).
Median upload speeds over mobile were much slower than download speeds in all GCC countries during 2020, as is often the case. UAE had the fastest upload speed during Q1 2021 at 23.62 Mbps. Qatar was second (21.96 Mbps), Saudi Arabia third (17.06 Mbps), Kuwait fourth (16.22 Mbps), Oman fifth (12.75 Mbps) and Bahrain sixth (10.17 Mbps).
5G adoption is highest in Saudi Arabia
The ratio of samples from devices that are connected to 5G to the number of samples from all 5G-capable devices speaks to the maturity of the 5G market in each country. Saudi Arabia had the highest ratio among GCC countries during Q1 2021. Qatar was second and UAE third, Kuwait fourth and Bahrain fifth. Oman, which only launched commercially-available 5G during Q1 2021, was a distant sixth.
Qatar had the highest 5G Availability
One way to understand the state of a 5G network is by looking at 5G Availability — the proportion of users spending the majority of their time on 5G. Mobile users with 5G-capable devices in Qatar had the highest 5G Availability among GCC countries with 38.1% during Q1 2021. Saudi Arabia was second (31.9%), Kuwait third (31.8%), UAE fourth (30.5%) and Bahrain fifth (17.3%). 5G Availability in Oman, where 5G was not commercially available until Q1 2021, was 3.0%.
5G in Saudi Arabia is much faster than global average
We compared Saudi Arabia’s median download speed over 5G with an average of 5G download speeds around the world during Q1 2021 and found that Saudi Arabia’s 5G is 127% faster at 322.42 Mbps.
stc was the fastest operator in Saudi Arabia, Mobily had highest rating and NPS
Speedtest Consumer Sentiment™ data provides rich insights into customer satisfaction over time, as well as competitive benchmarking, by providing data on both customers’ overall satisfaction with their network providers (based on a five-star scale) and Net Promoter Score (NPS). This data set is gathered from single-question surveys presented to users at the end of a Speedtest. Operators and government regulators across the globe use this data to monitor improvements over time. A comparison of Q1 2021 ratings data from Saudi Arabia’s top providers to their speeds during the same period, we can explore the relationship between customer satisfaction and network performance.
There was a wide spread among download speeds for Saudi Arabian mobile operators during Q1 2021 with stc showing the fastest median download and upload speeds at 76.81 Mbps and 19.71 Mbps, respectively. Mobily was second for download and upload speeds (62.36 Mbps and 13.29 Mbps, respectively) and Zain third (39.62 Mbps and 11.29 Mbps, respectively).
Mobily had the highest rating and the highest NPS among top providers in Saudi Arabia in Q1 2021. Substantively, there was not enough difference between the ratings of stc and Zain to determine a second and third ranking. stc was second for NPS and Zain third. It’s worth noting that the NPS was negative for all three operators, indicating that users were not likely on average to recommend the service to friends or family.
How Saudi Arabia will use additional spectrum to maximize performance
On March 30, Saudi Arabia’s Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) released the 3-year “Outlook for Commercial and Innovative Use of the Spectrum in Saudi Arabia.” The program includes a plan to make more than 23 GHz of spectrum available for innovative and commercial use: 4 GHz licensed, 6.2 GHz unlicensed and more than 13 GHz of lightly licensed spectrum. This balanced approach should maintain protection of key uses in their primary bands while supporting a range of technologies, including: mobile, satellite — including non-geostationary satellite orbit (NGSO), high altitude platform station (HAPS), air to ground and Wi-Fi/WiGig.
CITC will allocate the 600 MHz and 3800 – 4000 MHz bands for mobile use in 2021. The sub-1 GHz should help Saudi operators maximize the distance their 5G signals can travel as T-Mobile has done in the U.S.. This is important in a country with vast areas to span between major cities.
Meanwhile, the addition of the 3800 – 4000 MHz band to the already provided 3400-3800 MHz in the C-band should enable operators to add massive capacity to their networks and leverage the fully market-tested network infrastructure as well as a plethora of 5G capable devices. Specifically, with the recent mobile chipsets capable of FDD+TDD NR Carrier Aggregation, these provide a stepping stone and a smooth transition to standalone 5G, and allow operators to deploy an ideal mix of 5G coverage and capacity.
Saudi Arabia and the GCC as a whole are interesting markets to watch and we’ll continue using data from Speedtest Intelligence® to see if Saudi performance continues to improve and how the rankings shift as Oman ramps up their 5G program. For sneak peeks at how countries around the world are performing on a monthly basis, visit the Speedtest Global Index™.