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Telecoms Ministry officially launches long-awaited 3G service

Telecommunications Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui draws the winning students’ names during a press conference in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011. (Mohammad Azakir/The Daily Star)

BEIRUT: It’s official: 3G is coming Lebanon, and it will start at $19 per month for 500 megabytes, Telecoms Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui announced Thursday, drawing applause from dignitaries, students and journalists at the American University of Science and Technology.

“The act of increasing the Internet speed and decreasing the prices can put Lebanon on the map as being one of the fastest connections in the region,” the minister said during a news conference at AUST. The event was broadcast live in two different rooms at the university because of the large crowd that it drew.

He added that Lebanon could become a regional hub, with the building of the “Media and Smart City.”

The announcement comes amid lengthy efforts to speed up Lebanon’s Internet, which has been ranked as the world’s slowest by SpeedTest.net.

But some people worry that Lebanon lacks the infrastructure to offer the upgrades it is promising.

“It’s good news that we’re launching this service, and the administration should be given credit. But it’s not being done in the best environment,” said Riad Bahsoun, an expert at the International Telecommunications Union, the United Nations agency for information and communications technology. “The efficiency of 3G very much relies on the backbone of bandwidth. We’ll need three to four years before it’s completely operational.”

Bahsoun also questioned the new price announced by the ministry, saying that he thought the $19 monthly rate was initially being put forth to deter a surge in subscribers and prevent the system from getting clogged.

“If there are too many subscribers, the network will be congested,” he said.

Samer Karam, head of the group Flip the Switch, which has been campaigning for high-speed Internet, said he expects prices to go down as more people use the service, and he expected the system would be gradually upgraded as more subscribers enrol.

“This is a step in the right direction,” he said, adding that he plans on getting a 3G subscription.

Lebanon’s two state-run operators, Alfa and MTC, will offer 3G subscriptions and will announce the rates for other packages in early November.

Such technology has been in use in the West for the past 10 years and in more developed countries in the Middle East, like the UAE, since 2006.

Now, Lebanon, a country renowned for its educated workforce, entrepreneurship and high standard of living, appears to be one step closer to getting up to speed with the rest of the developed world.

High-speed broadband Internet, which has been activated in Beirut and some northern suburbs, should be available in the rest of the country in the coming two weeks, as the government works out technical issues in order to make the new service available to all users, an adviser to the ministry told the Daily Star.

The conference ended with Sehnaoui drawing names of winning students who entered a raffle for free smart phone and 3G subscriptions.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 21, 2011, on page 4.

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