The launch ot the GSM system in mid-Jan uary brought mobile telephones to the Saudi public for the first time. The system is being installed by the US’ AT&T in a $104 million contract awarded in August 1994. It was launched with an initial capacity of some 15,000-20.000 lines. Further lines are being installed at a rate of 5,000 a day until the final capacity is reached. Initially, the network covers the areas of Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam, representing 60 per cent of the kingdom’s estimated potential market.

Ultimately it will cover 45 Saudi cities and towns and all major highways.

Further lines will be added if demand is sufficiently high, industry sources say. Some 170,000 individuals had paid subscriptions when the Posts, Telegraphs & Telephones Ministry started distributing telephone numbers on 6 January. The 70,000 lines in Riyadh have been fully subscribed.

Getting mobile does not come cheap.

Handsets by international manufacturers are retailed at between SR 1,800-3,500 ($480930) each. The subscription fee is SR 3,000 ($800). Once up and running, subscribers are charged at SR 1.6 ($0.43) a minute peak time and SR 1.2 ($0.32) off-peak.

AT&T’s massive contract to install some 1.5 million new digital lines in the kingdom is also progressing. The first phase of the $3,950 million TEP-6 scheme has been completed, and 50,000 new lines are due to come into service in May. The overall scheme also includes 18 switching nodes, 10,000 kilometres of fibre optic cable, and digital microwave equipment. The expansion is due for completion in 2001. The new lines have the industry standard capacity of 65,000 bits per second (bps), and will enable customers to access services such as the Internet. The existing 9,600-bps lines restrict data transfer to electronic mail (Email) and newsgroups. A local Internet presence is expected to follow completion of TEP-6.

The TEP-6 scheme also incorporates the Saudi Arabia integrated operations system (SAIOS), consisting of more than 30 network systems which will significantly upgrade network management, engineering, customer service and information systems. It will come into operation in 1999. TEP-6 will also make the PTT one of the prime candidates eventually to be sold under the kingdom’s proposed privatisation programme.