The Syrian cellular arm of Lebanon-based telecoms group Investcom Holding (itself then owned by the Mikati Group, but since taken over by MTN Group), Areeba Syria (formerly Spacetel Syria) launched services in March 2001 via its '94' network. Initially the infrastructure was rolled out to major provinces, but rural areas quickly followed and population coverage and geographic coverage were 98% and 78% in the end of 2007 respectively. In August 2007 the cellco had 14 MSC, 32 BSC, 2035 sites, 2763 BTS. Mobile market in Syria
The mobile market in Syria is one of the newest in the region. The country was devoid of cellular telephony until 1999 when the Ministry of Communications and Technology (MoC) granted national PTO the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE) permission to begin a trial GSM service in the major cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia. In conjunction with Siemens and Ericsson, which also partly financed the project, STE installed ten base stations in the capital and six in Aleppo and Latakia. The pilot was launched in February 2000, with two operators selected to run the networks — SyriaTel, a joint venture between local investors and Egypt's Orascom Telecom, which has since exited the company, and Areeba Syria. At the time the pair had a combined capacity of 25,000 lines, SyriaTel with 10,000 and its rival 15,000, but a month later they had upped this to 60,000 lines, 40,000 of which were in Damascus and the remainder in Aleppo. In July 2000 network coverage was extended to the Damascus-Aleppo highway and in August to the major road between Latakia and Tartus. By the end of 2000 — effectively the end of the trial period — there were 29,000 GSM subscribers in Syria. The relatively low take-up was blamed on the fact that tariffs during the pilot phase were high, with connection charges peaking at $1,200. In early 2001 STE awarded two 15-year build-transfer-operate (BTO) contracts to SyriaTel and Areeba at a cost of $20 million each for 900MHz spectrum and a further $15 million for 1800MHz spectrum; the tender had been opened the previous July. Both cellcos launched commercially in 2001 (Areeba in March and SyriaTel a month later) and by the end of June mobile subscribers numbered 103,000, 47,000 connected to SyriaTel and 56,000 to Areeba. By the end of 2002 there were still only 403,381 mobile subscribers in the country, equivalent to a penetration rate of just 2.35%; subscribers were divided almost equally between the two operators. Things changed dramatically in 2003, however, as connection charges and operating tariffs fell and the launch of pre-paid services in the second quarter stimulated the market. Subscriber numbers doubled over the year to 1.2 million, with SyriaTel once again moving ahead of its rival with 54% of the market. The impressive takeup has continued. In June 2006 UAE-based Etisalat announced its interest in acquiring Syria's third GSM licence. The operator is on the acquisition trail and says it is planning to hold talks with STE to achieve its goal. However, the timing of the licence award remains in doubt and will most likely be heavily influenced by the Syrian government which, given the political climate in the region, is unlikely to prioritise further liberalisation of the mobile market. Adding to the complications, the incumbent cellcos have contracts with STE giving them seven years of exclusivity in the sector, which by Areeba's calculation, takes it to 29 June 2009 before any new player could launch. And in February 2007 STE said government would most likely award a third mobile licence to them in mid-2009. What is certain however, is that in a market with considerable growth potential — cellular penetration stood at just 19.1% at the end of June 2006, well below the regional average — the cost of the licence is expected to be high, and could be pushed higher if Qatari incumbent Q-Tel makes good on its intentions to ramp up its regional presence, by...
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