Internet in Saudi Arabia

Internet was first introduced to Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1994 when state academic, medical, and research institutions got access to it. Internet was officially made available in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1997 by a ministerial decision and the public access debuted in 1999. In December 2000 there were  about  200 thousand  Internet users in Saudi Arabia. By 2005 the number of Internet users had grown to 2,54 million, with  growth 1170 % and KSA was considered as one of the fastest growing Internet markets. (source: http://www.internetworldstats.com/middle.htm#sa).

In 2006 some major changes were made to the structure of Internet in KSA. These changes were behind the expansion of Internet usage in KSA. The Number of Internet users exceeded 16.4 million by the end of the second  quarter 2013, with internet penetration of about 56% (Source: http://www.citc.gov.sa/arabic/MediaCenter/Newsletter/Documents/PR_ENL_016.pdf)

This article gives more information on both old and new structure of Internet in KSA.

Basic terms

Let’s get first familiar with some basic terms.

Data Service Provider (DSP): Data Service Provider are  companies or organizations that provide and operate Internet Infrastructure such as  International gateways (STC, Mobily, Zain, ITC are examples )

Internet Service Provider (ISP): Internet Service Provider are companies or entities, who purchase  Internet  bandwidth from the DSPs and provides Internet connections to the companies and individuals.

Communication Infrastructure: Physical networks (e.g. cables, Fiber Optics, Microwave Links  …) that enables the transportation of information.

Backbone: Backbone is a high-speed line that forms a major pathway within a network and connects other, smaller networks together.

Proxy: Proxy is a server placed between a user’s machine and the Internet. It can act as a firewall to provide protection, as a cache area to speed up web page display and as a filter to prevent the user to access websites with inappropriate material.

Filtering system: Filtering system blocks the access to the websites that contain material that can be harmful or offensive to the  Internet user.

IP address: Each device  connected to the Internet has an address known as an Internet Protocol address (IP address). The IP address takes the form of four numbers separated by dots, for example: 123.45.67.89

Domain name: A domain name is the text name corresponding to the numeric IP address of a computer on the Internet. A domain name must be unique. Internet users access the website usually by using the domain name. A domain name can be for instance: company.com.sa.

Domain Name System (DNS): Domain name system maintains the relationship between IP addresses and domain names.

CITC: The Communications and Information technology Commission (CITC) is the authority responsible for   regulating ICT sector  in the Kingdom. Its mission is to ensure the provision of high quality universal telecommunications services at affordable prices. The Internet in KSA is regulated and supervised by CITC.

KACST: King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. KACST is a government research center that used to regulate and supervise the Internet in KSA before 2006, when CITC started handling this responsibility.

Internet Services Unit (ISU): ISU is a department at KACST which used to be in charge of the Internet Service in Saudi Arabia and currently provides internet service to academic and research sectors.

STC: Saudi Telecommunication Company.  STC is the incumbent telecom operator,  used to be the only company in KSA in charge of providing all telecommunication services in the kingdom for public.

Original structure of Saudi Arabian Internet.

The Internet in KSA is in the middle of a major restructuring. In order to understand what these changes could mean for the growth of Internet usage in Saudi Arabia, lets first give a quick look to the old structure.

Overview

When Internet was first made available for the public in KSA at the end of 1990’s, it was supervised by King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) and the Internet Service Unit (ISU) a department of KACST.

ISU acted as a Saudi Internet exchange point and worked in raising the public awareness with the Internet. It also formulated the rules and regulations that govern the use of the Internet in the country and took care of the Saudi domain name system.

The Internet was provided to the public through many number of commercial  ISPs who were licensed by KACST.

Gateways to International Internet

KACST provided the gateway to the International Internet for ISPs as well as all the Saudi universities and governmental research centers.

Infrastructure of physical network (National Internet)

The STC provided the communication infrastructure in the country.

The Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) network formed the Internet backbone in Saudi Arabia. ATM network covers most of the country and was used to connect the ISPs with KACST and with their dialup and ADSL clients.

The DDN (Digital Data Network) was used for connect ISPs with their leased-lines customers; it was also used by some organization to connect their different branches.

PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) was used for dialup and ADSL customers.

All the modems were owned buy STC and could be accessed by dialing a special number that start with 360xxxx. Each ISP has his own 360xxxx which works from any place in the country without the need to use any area code.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs)

ISPs bought the International Internet bandwidth service from KACST and local bandwidth from STC and sold the Internet access to their users.

Domain Names

ccTLD (Country Code Top Level Domain) for Saudi Arabia (.sa). The “.sa” is divided into several sub domains: “.com.sa”, “.org.sa”, “.net.sa”, “.gov.sa”, etc. The registration for domain names under “.sa” is free of charge, but there are certain requirements that the registrant should meet.

Filtering

In KSA the Internet is filtered. That means that the users can’t access websites that contain material that can be harmful or offensive to an Internet user.

The new structure of Saudi Arabian Internet

Overview

Communications and Internet Technology Commission (CITC) took over the supervision of Saudi Arabian Internet from KACST in 2006. In addition to that from 2006 forwards three licensed data service providers (DSPs) are  providing the commercial gateways to the Internet.

Gateways to the international Internet

From 2006 forward the gateways to the International Internet are provided by three licensed commercial DSPs: Bayanat, ITC and STC. The ISPs can choose from which DSP they buy their International Internet bandwidth. KACST keeps on providing International  gateway to Saudi universities and governmental research centers.

Infrastructure of physical network (National Internet)

STC still owns the old communication infrastructure in the country: ATM network, DDN and PSTN. In addition to that the new DSPs as well as ISPs and other companies may build their own communication infrastructure

Internet Service Providers (ISPs)

ISPs can now buy their International Internet bandwidth from one of the licensed DSPs. They still may need to buy the local bandwidth from STC or other DSP. The competition between the three DSPs enables more affordable Internet access to the users.

Domain Names

CITC is  in charge of managing the ccTLD (Country Code Top Level Domain) for Saudi Arabia (.sa). The sub domain system as well as the registration procedure for domain names under “.sa” are the  same as discussed before.

Filtering

One of the biggest changes in the structure of Internet in KSA is the change of the filtering system. From 2006 on filtering functions are handled CITC and took place   at the servers of the three DSPs. The DSPs gets  the list of filtered addresses from CITC. See Internet Filtering in Saudi Arabia for more details.

Future of Internet in Saudi Arabia

It is estimated that the Internet usage will keep on growing rapidly in the KSA. In addition to the new Internet structure that can cut the prices of Internet access, there are also other factors that can speed up the growth of Internet usage in Saudi Arabia.

One reason for the growth is that 60 % of the Saudi population comprises teenagers and young adults who are adapting to new technologies faster than expected.

As the usage of Internet grows in all the Arabic countries, the amount of Arabic content on the Internet will grow as well. This in turn will attract more and more Saudis to join the Internet.

Several universities and colleges in KSA are now adopting e-learning as a part of their curriculum. In addition,  more banks and companies will offer more of their services online, more customers are drawn to use these services. The health care sector  is  another sector that accelerating the use of Internet. Many big hospitals are performing wide range of their operational activities on line.