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ADMC's winning of EPL Middle East broadcast rights may prompt regional telecommunications firms to upgrade their internet service.

Streaming football a game changer

Streaming major sport online will be a huge test for many Middle East countries, as the broadband internet needed to deliver live games to TV and computer screens is not yet up to the job in much of the region. Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC), the parent company and publisher of The National, won the exclusive Middle East rights to broadcast the English Premier League (EPL) for three years starting in August. ADMC will offer live EPL games to its customers through broadband internet, cable networks and satellite television.

The Middle East lags the rest of the world in internet connectivity, with many analysts suggesting that only about 28 per cent of the population has access to the Web. The region also suffers from the poorest broadband quality in the world, figures from the Said Business School at the University of Oxford showed. But the size and scope of the EPL could potentially be the game changer that Middle East telecommunications companies looking for a reason to invest in upgrading their internet have been waiting for.

"It's the network effect: the more content you have, the more users you have on a network, the more incentives there are for people to join," said Jawad Abbas, the founder and general manager of the Arab Advisers Group, a consultancy based in Jordan. While the speed necessary for streaming is relatively affordable in the Gulf, the challenge is ensuring other countries, mainly in North Africa and the Levant region, will have access to the same quality of internet, said Simon Simonian, a telecoms analyst at Shuaa Capital.

"Things are improving but we are behind in terms of adoption," said Mr Simonian. "You have to give it a few years for it to be successful commercially." Efforts at improving the internet in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon are already under way but will mature at a slower pace. In December, Tarek Kamel, the Egyptian communications minister, said the country was preparing a US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) initiative to boost internet penetration rates to 20 per cent in the next four years.

In Lebanon, the government is expected to reduce the cost of high-speed internet by 30 per cent and has pledged $166 million to upgrade the local internet backbone. One major technical issue that telecoms operators must take into account is being able to ensure their networks can handle the sudden jump in demand once an EPL game is streamed online. "Content providers must purchase transit to deliver their content to the end users," said Giles Cottle, the senior analyst of broadband at Informa Telecoms and Media.

"The cost of doing this in the Gulf is far, far higher than in Europe - up to 50 times in some cases. This makes scaling a live-streaming service financially prohibitive." For high-profile content such as EPL to reach Middle East online users, ADMC needs to be operating in a robust digital environment, said Karim Sarkis, the executive director of broadcast at ADMC. The company will achieve that mainly through making the EPL available at a low price and working directly with telecoms operators.

"If you look at ADMC's overall digital approach to things, obviously digital is an important part of our plans as we transition our brands into the digital realm," Mr Sarkis said. "So yes, making people more aware and driving the uptake of broadband is an important part of ADMC's strategy." Countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran and Qatar already have good broadband infrastructure, analysts have found.

Etisalat has spent up to Dh5bn building a fibre-optic network that is expected to be fully operational this year. Analysts have said that people hoping to stream live football matches would need no less than a 2 megabyte-per-second connection. * with additional reporting by Charlie Hamilton


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