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Saudi Arabia’s Hajj becomes safer and smarter

Saudi Arabia receives around 1.75 million pilgrims from around the world for the annual Islamic Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca. Making necessary arrangements each year for the growing number of pilgrims poses a logistic challenge for the government, as well as telecom providers striving to cater to the dense crowds. The solution, according to reports, has been the implementation of smart connectivity.

Hajj pilgrim numbers have steadily increased in recent years which have led to numerous accidents and deaths due to overcrowding. In 2015, a stampede resulted in 769 deaths and injuries to 934 others, according to Saudi authorities. The Associated Press totaled at least 1,470 fatalities from official reports from other countries, making it the most deadly Hajj incident to date.

But the Hajj is a major revenue driver for Saudi Arabia, raking in around $8.5 billion in 2014. It’s the kingdom’s highest source of revenue after oil and gas, and the country is expected to depend more on the event as oil and gas sales decline. Saudi Vision 2030 is Saudi Arabia’s plan to reduce its dependence on oil by diversifying its economy and developing service sectors.

Introducing more connectivity and smart solutions, it seems, has made the Hajj pilgrimage a lot safer the past two years in Saudi Arabia, and a much more seamless experience for those involved. In 2016, for example, Saudi authorities issued electronic bracelets to pilgrims containing personal and medical information to assist authorities caring for and identifying people, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

The water-resistant bracelets, developed by British security firm G4S, are connected to GPS and contain crucial information such as passport numbers and addresses, and also useful information to worshippers, such as timings of prayers, and a multi-lingual help desk to guide non-Arabic speakers around the event. The high-tech measure, G4S said, would help Saudi authorities provide care “and identify people.”

Wearable technology company Daira Tech also pledged its services to make Hajj and Umrah “safer and simpler” by developing its own connected bracelet called ‘Hajj Guider’, which provides tracking, voice communications and an emergency/panic button. The company’s smartphone app allows users to navigate offline, setup groups, track friends and family, and create custom geo fences.

Since the 1950s, Saudi Arabia has spent over $100 billion to increase pilgrimage facilities, according to the Encyclopedia of Islam. The government has addressed and improved major issues such as housing transportation, sanitation and healthcare, with the result that pilgrims now enjoy modern facilities and perform rites at ease.  

Saudi authorities reportedly installed more than 800 surveillance cameras at the Grand Mosque in Mecca linked to control rooms staffed by Special Forces monitoring pilgrim movements during Hajj rituals to ensure maximum safety and security.

Live crowd analytics software has also been implemented by authorities, which is not only able to spot incidents happening in crowds, but can also predict where overcrowding is likely to happen. Authorities can analyze live data that feeds into an operations room. The software, developed by London-based CrowdVision, provides real-time feedback on crowd numbers, densities, and so on.

“Crowds can be dangerous places. Whether triggered by factions within the crowd, by natural disasters or misguided crowd managers, there is a long history of crushes, stampedes and failed evacuations," said CrowdVision co-founder Fiona Strens. "[The software] spots patterns of crowd behavior that indicate potential danger such as high densities, pressure, turbulence, stop-and-go waves and other anomalies.”

Improved telecom services

Busy public events like Hajj create challenges not only for government, but also for telecom operators, as many people attempt to access mobile networks at the same time. Saudi Arabia’s telecom providers, in response to the growing number of Hajj pilgrims, have stepped up their game for the event by providing premium connectivity for all.

Saudi Telecom Company (STC), the kingdom’s largest telecom provider, increased Wi-Fi coverage in Mecca and Holy sites this year to prepare for the Hajj pilgrimage. The increased coverage extends to tunnels, bridges, and a number of public utilities in Mina.

STC increased Wi-Fi by 206 percent compared to last year, it said. The increase enabled a high speed of data to flow to pilgrims and workforces. The company said it dedicated all of its technical and human capabilities “to serve pilgrims coming to the country.” STC even announced a special offer for the first time with "SAWA Ziyara" SIM cards, that were specialized for this year’s Hajj season.

Saudi Arabia’s second largest telecom provider, Etihad Etisalat (Mobily), also made exceptional connectivity preparations to cater for the needs of Hajj pilgrims this year. The company said it increased data capacity by 50 percent through 4G in Holy areas to improve data services.  

Mobily also provided over 1,300 Wi-Fi access points with a capacity of 2,080 MB per second in the Holy areas of Mina, Arafat, and Muzdalifah, it said. Additionally, the telecom provider set up more than 1,000 fixed and mobile communication towers in Mecca and other Holy places.

The company, partly owned by UAE’s Etisalat Group, recently signed an agreement to develop its mobile network in different regions around the Kingdom with Nokia, Huawei and Ericsson. The agreement comes in line with Saudi Vision 2030 and its objectives that focus on developing Saudi Arabia’s telecom and IT sector, said Eng. Ahmed Aboudoma, CEO of Mobily.   

Mobily’s Chief Technology Officer and Head of Hajj Committee, Eng. Maziad Alharbi, said the company feels “honored to be one of the national companies working in serving pilgrims every year.”

Efforts to increase connectivity for Hajj have also been undertaken by Zain Saudi Arabia, a subsidiary of Kuwait’s Zain Group, which announced in May this year that it had deployed Nokia’s Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC) platform for the delivery of smart applications to subscribers heading to Mecca. The new solution enabled Zain subscribers to navigate crowded areas safely.

Zain Saudi Arabia’s Sultan Al Deghaither, Chief Technology Officer, said the company had invested in modernizing its network in the Hajj area. “The deployment of the Nokia MEC platform and two smart Hajj applications on this network is yet another milestone in our evolution toward building smart cities in the kingdom,” he said.

Following the successful trial during the 2016 Hajj, Nokia and Zain deployed the Nokia Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC) platform together with Edge Video Orchestration over the network using both macro and small cell base stations to enhance the experience for Zain's subscribers.

The Nokia MEC platform allows applications to be hosted closer to the edge of the network, therefore closer to subscribers, to efficiently use network resources and open up new opportunities for the delivery of tailored services in high-traffic locations. By combining MEC with Edge Video Orchestration, video feeds can be efficiently broadcast to multiple subscribers' devices simultaneously with millisecond latency.

During Hajj, subscribers could download and use two site-specific applications over the MEC-enabled network, including ‘Zain People Finder’ which helps to easily navigate crowds and locate people; and the ‘Live Hajj’ app which allows users to view video streams from the Al Rahmah Mountain, to identify the best time of day to perform the 'flinging of the pebbles' ritual.

“We are pleased to work with Zain to provide the benefits of using MEC to deliver a differentiated experience at such an important event,” said Ali Al Jitawi, head of the Zain Saudi Arabia Customer Team at Nokia.

Nokia also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with STC this year to collaborate on the development of 5G and IoT use cases in Saudi Arabia. Under the terms of the MoU, Nokia and STC will carry out trials of technologies such as 4.5G Pro and 4.9G, key steps on the path to 5G to build the capacity and throughput speeds needed for new applications.

The collaboration will play an important role in STC’s digitalization transformation and its support of Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision, which includes a strategic and comprehensive plan to develop the Hajj sector so as to allow the largest number of Muslims possible to attend.