Melanie Butcher
Contributing writer

State of 5G in Saudi Arabia: Expectations and current reality

Apr 13, 2022

5G has the potential to accelerate the transformation of Saudi Arabiau2019s most lucrative industries and fueling the growth of emerging technologies like IoT, AI, and cloud and edge computing.

Wireless telecommunications tower encircled by concentric, virtual rings.
Credit: Sasha85ru / Getty Images

5G not only offers important breakthroughs for Saudi Arabia’s most profitable industries, including gas and oil, logistics, and services, but has the potential to drive innovation through IoT-powered smart cities. The kingdom is an established 5G pioneer not only in the Gulf region, where it ranks closely to the UAE and Qatar, but globally, where it consistently ranks among the highest available speeds worldwide.

Average download speeds in Saudi Arabia have reached more than twice the global average at 322 Mbps, according to network-testing company Ookla. Saudi Arabia’s success can be attributed in no small part to its transformative policy of making all 1200MHz of the 6GHz band available for unlicensed Wi-Fi usage in the low- and mid-band ranges, freeing up the crowded 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands to enable businesses and individuals to deploy next-generation applications and services. As one of very few countries that have opened up the 6GHz frequency band, Saudi Arabia will benefit from not only faster connectivity, but the opportunity to accelerate the adoption and deployment of new technology as it emerges.

What is 5G?

5G’s ultra-fast speed, low latency, and higher capacity for connected devices are among its main advantages. It uses less power and is up to 20 times faster than 4G, and can handle huge volumes of data, which enables cloud and edge computing applications to process data exactly when and where it is needed. 5G enables network slicing — a technique that allows multiple virtual networks to run on top of shared infrastructure, so that they can be flexibly tailored to different groups’ specific needs. 5G offers real-time data exchange, which in conjunction with AI and machine learning can provide vital insights for critical systems management for so-called smart cities like the massive Neom project in Saudi Arabia.

5G coverage expands

Today, 5G coverage is available to 78% of the Saudi population, compared to 43% two years ago, according to GSMA Intelligence data. “This highlights solid progress while showing there is still more to be done to expand coverage, particularly in remote desert locations where the economics of network deployment are most challenging,” says GSMA Intelligence’s Director of Regional, Social and Policy Research Kenechi Okeleke. “In response to this, the country’s three largest mobile operators have recently launched a domestic roaming service in the Asir region, enabling users to connect to any available mobile network in the event of coverage gaps on their own provider’s network. There are plans to expand this service to further villages and settlements to improve user experience.”

For example, Okeleke says, Zain KSA recently announced the rollout of a 5G Standalone (SA) network, which can provide additional capacity and deliver much lower latency for key enterprise use cases, such as industrial IoT, and augmented and virtual reality.

5G is also getting faster in Saudi Arabia: Analytics company Open Signal found that national average speeds more than doubled from 2019 to the end of 2021, and the country ranks in the top 15 globally for the fastest average and peak download speeds (230Mbps and 637Mbps, respectively), and for 5G video experience, availability, and reach.

More network allocations set for 2022

After releasing the 6GHz band to unlicensed users last year, the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) plans to allocate three spectrums in 2022: 450MHz for a “business-critical” communications network; 2100MHz for non-terrestrial networks (NTN) such as wireless connectivity on aircraft and 5G satellite communications; and the 600MHz, 700MHz, and 3800MHz spectrums for international mobile telecommunications (IMT). The deadline for applications for the 450MHz frequency, set aside for specialised broadband networks for enterprises, has been scheduled for May 19th.

Which industries stand the most to gain?

For consumers, 5G means faster connectivity, better mobile video and voice experiences, and more immersive entertainment including high-quality live streaming for gaming, virtual reality, and e-sports — a major added value considering that almost half of Saudi Arabia’s population enjoys gaming  regularly. But enterprises stand to gain the most from universal 5G rollout, from Saudi Arabia’s booming logistics and services sector to the oil and gas industry, which still comprises about 40% of the country’s GDP.

 “Notable 5G applications that could benefit enterprises in Saudi Arabia include centralised surveillance monitoring, production process analytics and equipment maintenance, smart metering, smart parking, vehicle trackers, and smart agriculture applications,” Okeleke says. 

5G and IoT Saudi’s smart city projects

“The Saudi government is also keen to leverage the capabilities of 5G efforts to improve the quality of urban living through a number of smart city initiatives, notably the purpose-built Neom,” Okeleke says. The $500 billion megacity project aims to transform a remote 26,500 square kilometre area on the Red Sea coast into the kingdom’s own Silicon Valley, complete with research centres, trade zones, and residential communities powered by renewable energy. Work recently commenced on “The Line,” a 170-kilometre long car-free city that will be run on a network of IoT devices and resident data, from ultra high-speed autonomous trains to smart homes and offices.

“5G will be central to the functioning of these cities and the delivery of public services across the country by enabling large-scale IoT deployments for increased productivity and efficiency in key sectors, such as transportation, utilities, healthcare, and other critical public services sectors,” Okeleke says.

In April 2022, STC and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund embarked on a joint venture to establish a new company to promote IoT technology in smart cities as well as industries like manufacturing, logistics, and transportation. The consultation arm of the company will also guide businesses through the entire process of adopting IoT, from building new funding models to allow for the adoption of the technology, to providing team support and training courses.

5G supercharges cloud and edge computing

The growth of 5G gives cloud computing a critical boost, as it allows businesses to transfer and store large volumes of data quickly and securely, creating a more efficient and collaborative workplace. Shifting to the cloud allows companies to focus on strategic operations, cutting costs and increasing scalability. Saudi Arabia launched its Cloud First Policy in 2019 to promote the use of cloud-based solutions for governmental entities and enterprises alike. The country’s cloud market is set to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 35% between 2021 and 2030, offering a lucrative opportunity for cloud service providers as businesses like Saudi Aramco move their operations to the cloud.

5G’s high bandwidth and low latency has also opened up new possibilities for edge computing, and key industries like transportation, logistics, security, and manufacturing can benefit from the real-time insights the technology provides. Edge computing, or processing and storing data closer to the data source, will reduce latency issues that would impact the performance of critical applications.

Saudi Arabia’s extensive surveillance networks require constant and reliable connections to security cameras operating on the edge; the autonomous trains need to respond in real-time to ensure passenger safety; its $27 billion transport and logistics market requires complex data for predictive maintenance in warehouses, for the deployment of robotics, and to ensure that high volumes of goods to reach customers with speed and accuracy. Edge computing will be critical for the latency targets that Saudi Arabia’s network providers have in mind, making 5G and edge computing symbiotic partners in Saudi Arabia’s 5G transformation.

The future of 5G

Saudi Arabia’s ambitious investments in 5G and its digital economy are beginning to pay off. CITC expects that 5G and Wi-Fi 6E will increase contribution to the country’s GDP from $4.7 billion in 2021 to more than $18 billion by 2030. 5G is the launching pad needed to accelerate the development and deployment of emerging technologies like AI, IoT, cloud and edge computing, with the potential to transform the IT industry in ways that we can only begin to predict.

With the rapid proliferation of 5G networks, the kingdom faces a few challenges, including succeeding in the nationwide roll-out across rural areas, developing and attracting tech talent, ensuring the security and privacy of data, and discovering new use cases and associated services. The 5G revolution has presented Saudi Arabia with a flurry of new questions about the way that businesses and societies could function, spurring on a fundamental paradigm shift that offers the kingdom new opportunities to flourish.