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Internet, WiFi, GPRS, EDGE and 3G networks in Dubai and Sharjah - UAE
Wednesday, 23 January 2008
Having arrived in the UAE by ferry in Port Khalid - Sharjah – we expected mobile communication wouldn’t be a problem at all. Totally true, getting connected is no problem at all is this region. There’s full coverage for mobile / cell phones with GPRS/EDGE/3G (internet) in all city regions and a lot of WIFI hotspots. However at a price. Coming from Iran, Pakistan and India getting connected is far more cheaper. Nonetheless with a little bit of preparation there’s a way to reduce costs when you stay longer than just a few days.

In January 2008 the UAE has two communication providers. Etisalat and the newcomer Du – both operating a cell / mobile network and providing Internet access. At a glance the tariffs are not that much different and getting connected is a swift efficient and effective process.

For tourists / visitors there are special sim card packages for a 90 day connection. Which is the maximum stay on a tourist visa including a 30 extension. Etisalat charges 90 Dhs, Du does the same for 70 Dhs. This was during Du’s promotional event to get access to the market.

Calling rates are not that exciting. Compared to a European network subscription in roaming mode it’s way cheaper. Compared to Iranian, Pakistani, Indian and Nepali rates it’s expensive. Local calls are charged between 30 upto 60 Fills / minute (100 Fills = 1 Dhs). International calls take about 2,5 Dhs/minute. (€ 0,46 / minute). Du does it a little more fair and charges by the second. Etisalat charges by the minute.

Getting connected to the Internet through GPRS/EDGE using a laptop requires the APN name. For Etisalat this is “”. For Du is simply “Du”. Settings for browsing the internet using WAP (surfing through the mobile phone browser) are sent automatically or require a call to the helpdesk.

With Du getting the APN setting caused some confusion. Not used to getting asked for the APN, the helpdesk referred to the sales shop. It seems that not many Du customers are GPRS / EDGE connected to the internet through a laptop. From the Du sales shop they managed to get the APN name from their technical desk after a few hours. Anyhow, compared to the time it took to find the APN name for the mobile networks in Pakistan, India and Nepal it’s fast. The crew at the Du shop in Ibn Battutta Mall do a great job.

An internet connection through your mobile / cell phone using GPRS/EDGE gets charged for 1 fills/Kb. That’s about € 1,92 / Mb which is not cheap. The EDGE Internet connection is fast so a few minutes of unsuspected surfing using a laptop ticks away the Mb’s pretty fast.

Du however has data bundles of 50 and 200 Mb for 195 and 495 Dhs. That’s 3,9 Dhs /Mb (€ 0,73 / Mb) or 2,4 Dhs/Mb (€ 0,46 / Mb). That’s a better GPRS/EDGE deal for sure, but still a charge to recon with. The newer 3G Standard is charged at the double rate by Etisalat. Du doesn’t mention any supplemental charge for 3G. Anyhow prices are high but for this you get true Internet mobility in the city.

A bit more cheaper and way faster is getting connected through a WiFi hotspot. To find the hotspots takes a free mobile call to the Etilisat or Du helpdesk. Otherwise a (prepared) print of a few hotspots can be handy. To get to a hotspot you need a taxi or private transport. There’s little public transport around in the UAE. Taxi’s are cheap though. For about 10 Dhs (€ 1,88) a shopping mall with Starbucks (coffee shop) is never far away.

In January 2008 Du is giving away free WiFi internet access at the Ibn Battutta Mall for 7 days per registration at the Starbucks coffee shop. You need an e-mail address and a local mobile phone number to register. Multiple registrations per mobile number worked in January 2008.

Etisalat is charging 15 Dhs (€ 2,88) for 1 hour broadband WIFI access in for instance the Mega Mall in Sharjah. There are a few cheaper rates / hour however you need to pay more to reduce the rate / hour. To us the one that fitted the best was 12 WiFi hours valid for 60 days package charged at 120 Dhs. (€ 1,87 / hour)

To get instantly connected through Etisalat with WiFi broadband with a credit card is a little bit of a hassle. Other payment methods are available but take more time to prepare. The credit card payment merchant requires a change of browser settings with a proxy server. It is explained at the hotspot website after connecting but it’s a subtle hint. Anyone not used to such tweaks might end up unconnected.

The quality the internet lines we’ve experienced so far is pretty good. Calling though Skype over a WiFi connection was possible with little disturbance even with many other people connected by the same WiFi hotspot. Nearly all seats in the Starbucks café were taken by people with laptops.

Trying to “war-drive” yourself into an open WiFi access point without cracking the WEP code might be futile. There are many many WiFi networks in Sharjah and Dubai, sometimes even upto 25 networks at the same time. Most of them are WEP protected, require the right MAC address or have a hidden SSID. Surprisingly many use the same default WiFi radio channel, number 6 or 11. With such density on 1 channel the connection speed sure is lower than what’s technically possible.

Besides that in most cases there isn’t space to sit down or park your car. Traffic is dense, parking is a problem and when the sun is out, it’s hot!. It might prove more relaxing to sit in an A/C Mall with a coffee and a good chair. Or when you can afford the charge a GPRS/EDGE Internet connection anywhere you feel like it…given your laptop has enough battery power.

In any case it might be worth the effort to check out the Etisalat and Du websites for recent deals before arriving in the UAE.  With growing competition better deals are coming for sure. Later this year Du plans to launch a data-connection package for laptop users. Probably it’ll be a 3G or GPRS/EDGE card combined with a data bundle and/or promotion.

Update 17 februari 2008::

VOIP connections, as used in Skype, are blocked by Etisalat. At the same time (february 2008) Du Internet allows Skype calls. It seems SIP connectiosn as used in VOIP technology are blocked by Etilsata. The Skype homepage is also invisible.
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