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Etihad Etisalat (Mobily) claims to have become the first operator in the world to launch commercial service using the emerging TDD version of LTE.

TD-LTE coverage will exceed 32 cities and towns, representing 85 percent of the populated areas in Saudi Arabia, with a population that totals 24,735,000. Mobily is using TD-LTE because frequency pairs (FDD-LTE) in the 2.6GHz bands were not available. But Bayanat, their WiMAX subsidiary, had spectrum available in the 2.5GHz band, so Mobily will use that for their TD-LTE service.

Mobily was not the only one announcing LTE service in Saudi Arabia this week. Saudi Telecom Company (STC) and Zain also claimed to be the first to launch LTE in Saudi Arabia, although details of their launches varied.

Mobily’s TD-LTE coverage includes the Saudi Arabian cities of Najran, Jazan, Al Kharj, Ras Tanoura, Algurayat and Aldudamy, in the first phase. Launches are planned in the next two weeks in Hail, Al Baha, Al Mujamaaa and Wadi Al Dawasir. Next month will see a third batch of cities with the capital Riyadh, along with Jeddah and Damamm.

Mobily, which is majorly owned by telecoms giant Etisalat, will use some 2,400 LTE towers in more than 30 cities across Saudi Arabia. Mobily announced TD-LTE network deals with Huawei and Samsung in February, worth “hundreds of millions”, according to the carrier. In 2008, Mobily bought Bayanat, a WiMAX provider.

Alcatel-Lucent will supply Saudi Telecom with LTE base stations, along with Ericsson. Zain contracted with Motorola to deploy their 2.6 GHz FDD-LTE network in Saudi Arabia.

Mobily currently has 5 million customers in Saudi Arabia, with 2.3 million subscribed to data packages. STC serves more than 24 million customers in Saudi Arabia, and Zain covers 93% of Saudi Arabia. Zain Saudi’s mobile market share fell to 16 percent in 2010, leaving it a distant third to former monopoly STC and Etisalat’s Mobily.

The TDD version of LTE is expected to gain traction in India, China and with US operators Clearwire and Sprint. The Saudi Arabian launch could give operators a helpful case study. To date all global launches of LTE have used the FDD version of the technology.

Mobily was the first Saudi operator to obtain 3G mobile license from CITC, the country’s telecom regulator (early 2005). The kingdom’s mobile penetration rate is 188 percent, according to the International Telecommunications Union.

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