As mobile penetration levels continue to surpass fixed-line usage, governments across the region are waking up to the growing importance of portable devices.

Several governments have already responded to the rise in use of smartphones, tablets, laptops and netbooks in the Middle East by launching their e-government services on the mobile platform.

Bahrain and the UAE offer simple mobile-government (m-government) services such as electronic visas. But more services will need to be developed if the region’s policy-makers are to keep up with changing consumer habits.

At the end of March, there were 216 million mobile phone subscribers across the Middle East, of which 12.8 per cent were regular users of mobile internet.

Mobile phone users in the Middle East

Mobile handset shipments are set to reach 167.8 million by the end of 2011, while smartphone sales are set to rise by 39 per cent in the region by 2015, according to US-based market researcher IDC. Some 1.3 billion networked devices are expected to be in use in the Middle East and Africa by 2015.

Mobile internet and broadband is already the most common way for people in the Middle East to browse the web, rather than relying on fixed-line networks.

Much of the online content consumed is in English; Arabic content is largely considered to be of poor quality, with most of it generated through forums and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. This presents an opportunity for the region’s governments to exploit the mobile platform not just by offering citizens e-government services, but also by engaging directly with them through social networks.

Governments are under further pressure to become more open and accessible to their people

The number of people subscribing to social networking sites is increasing rapidly in the region. Facebook has more than 25 million users across the Middle East. Social networking can be a part of the government presence online by enabling officials to communicate with the population.

Some of the most famous personalities in the  region have already built up a strong presence online. Queen Rania of Jordan has some 1.5 million followers on Twitter.

With the political changes that have been brought about by the 2011 Arab uprisings, governments are under further pressure to become more open and accessible to their people. These simple services are a stepping-stone towards engaging with the people.

One of the enabling factors is mobile wireless technology, third-generation and long-term evolution

Trevor Dearing, Juniper Networks

But the availability of infrastructure, such as  fibre-optic cables and mobile networks, varies across the region. While smaller countries including Bahrain and Qatar have been able to provide 100 per cent coverage, others such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt struggle with rough terrains and have much larger land masses to cover. This leaves a significant percentage of the population without access to both internet and mobile networks, exasperating the digital divide in the region.

About 300 million people living in rural areas across the region are under-served by operators, according to Swedish mobile vendor Ericsson.

Enabling access

“E-government relies on access, you cannot have e-government if people do not have access and those without access become disenfranchised,” says Trevor Dearing, chief network strategist for Europe, Middle East and Africa region at US-based network solution provider Juniper Networks. 

“One of the enabling factors is mobile wireless technology, third-generation (3G) and long-term evolution (LTE) and devices that use the technology to bridge the digital divide.”

Rolling out networks whether fixed or mobile is costly and one of the ways to solve the problem is sharing infrastructure.

“The initial push for infrastructure sharing usually comes from the government, but the telecoms operators have to make it work and find a workable model,” says Jeremy Foster, head of marketing and government and industry relations, Middle East and Africa region at Ericsson.

“It is a new way of solving technical challenges to deliver social equality.”

Saudi Arabia, one of the countries facing a big challenge in connecting its citizens to the online world, has encouraged network sharing among its telecoms operators.

According to Saudi Telecoms Company (STC) chairman Saud al-Daweesh, the firm already shares its networks with rivals Zain and Etihad-Etisalat (Mobily).

The partnership with telecom operators is not limited to infrastructure. Governments can work with the operators to provide more sophisticated m-government services. One of the most basic services that some governments have pursued is a mobile payment solution, which enables citizens to pay water and electricity bills using their mobile phones.

In the UAE, Emirates Telecommunications Corporation (Etisalat) signed a memorandum of strategic partnership with the Dubai government in 2007 to develop and establish the groundwork for e-government solutions, with particular focus on mobile solutions to the broader regional market.

While the enterprise sector is best placed to spearhead the developments in services, such as mobile-health and mobile-banking, they require the backing of government entities and policymakers to become successful.

Mobile-banking (m-banking) is one of the latest offerings in the Middle East. In places where there is a lack of trust in the banks, m-banking is seen as the safer, more reliable option.

The service is already available in Iraq, Tunisia, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, Kuwait, Oman and the UAE. Algeria, Libya, Syria, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been slower to develop and launch these services with their telecoms operators.

Mobile banking

However, m-banking will never be successful if the central bank does not set out rules and regulations for the service between the banks. Egypt’s mobile operators Mobinil, Vodafone and Etisalat have for the past three years been waiting for the central bank and telecoms regulators to decide on a policy strategy for the service.

“Mobinil’s m-banking service has passed through the board of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority,” says Alex Chalaby, chairman of Mobinil.

“We are now in the implementation stage and they want to make sure that there is sufficient security and that the outlets will have capability to implement the service, so there are some minor requirements that need to be met before the actual launch.”

It can be easy to confuse mobile applications with government-backed or m-government solutions available on the mobile platform. For example, Saudi Arabia’s Mobily launched a service in February that transmits sonograms directly to a patient’s smartphone. This cannot be classified as an m-government service, rather it is merely a mobile-health application.

What it highlights, however, is the endless ways these devices can be used and it is important for governments to adjust to new technologies and establish their presence firmly on this platform. Developing an m-government portal requires working with many partners. Inevitably, this means that it will be a slow process before governments can be truly mobile. But if achieved, it allows for easy accessibility and agility to respond to changes and requests, and is an effective medium to communicate directly with citizens.

Yet while m-government presents these clear opportunities, its wider introduction is likely to be held back by security concerns.

“As the number of laptops and mobile devices increase, information filters out onto all these different endpoints and it has been almost impossible to track the flow of that,” says Dale Zabriskie, principal technologist at US-based security firm Symantec.

The dissemination of information, particularly sensitive and identifiable information across the growing number of devices makes the question of security more urgent for governments and citizens alike.

Cyber security concerns

Cyber criminals are beginning to turn their attention to mobile devices and one of the most vulnerable routes is via mobile applications. This raises concerns as many of these services are application based.

To counter this, governments need to ensure that user information is kept safe, while telecoms operators have to make sure that networks are reliable. Handset manufacturers can also do their bit by investing in new technology to build more robust devices, capable of withstanding cyber attacks.

Healthcare goes mobile

Mobile-health (m-health) has attracted investments from many of the region’s telecoms operators, including Egypt’s Mobinil and the UAE’s Etisalat and Du. It is one of the new services encouraged by governments in the hope of reducing healthcare costs and making the industry more efficient. The services can range from simple information-led applications to more advanced remote monitoring services.

With the help of the UAE’s Health Ministry, Du has launched several initiatives to deliver healthcare solutions to their customers.

Du’s Health Text is a messaging service providing information and advice on better lifestyle choices, these range from pregnancy-related tips, to advice on losing weight and how to quit smoking. Its Health Call is a 24-hour call-centre, currently under construction to link customers directly with physicians.

Health Link is a remote monitoring system to help sufferers of chronic diseases keep track of their vital statistics.

“Healthcare is a national necessity. We are in the business of connecting people and connecting machines together,” says Farid Faraidooni, chief commercial officer at Du.

“So we can play a role in providing services in a more efficient and better way for doctors and patients.”

Telecoms firms see m-health as playing an increasingly significant role in connecting patients with healthcare providers and empowering them with more information about
their conditions.

“Over the next 12 months, we can expect physicians to use smartphones to not only search for information, but to access health records of their patients, collaborate with others as a community,” says Faraidooni.

“There will be strong growth in non-physician activities such as patient self monitoring, remote data transfer, preventive healthcare and lifestyle management by customers themselves,” he adds.

Du hopes to use its networks and technologies to tackle the UAE’s health challenges. “The rising prevalence of diabetes and cardiac diseases is alarming in the country,” he says.

“These are areas where we can work with health agencies to better manage patients using mobile-health technologies, including remote disease management and chronic care.”

Du is piloting Health Link with Swedish vendor Ericsson, offering patients who suffer from chronic illnesses such as diabetes, respiratory and cardio-vascular diseases, the option to monitor and manage their data remotely, without having to visit a doctor or hospital.

“Today, technology supports these services, they are no longer a theory, but a reality that can help to reduce the financial burden on the healthcare system,” says Faraidooni.