BEIRUT: Lebanon’s touch mobile operator is updating its network to reverse a deterioration in services caused by a surge in new subscribers and the introduction of third generation networks, the firm’s CEO said Tuesday.
“Back in 2008, we had only around 800,000 subscribers but now we have reached over 2 million,” Claude Bassil told reporters.
“In the mobile telecom sector you need to anticipate growth and expand before the demand picks up,” he said, adding: “In Lebanon it has been quite the opposite.”
Touch, formerlyMTC touch, is one of two mobile operators in Lebanon.
In February its contract to manage a government-owned network was renewed by the Cabinet.
According to Bassil, problems facing mobile connectivity are due to limited capacity rather than signal coverage problems.
He said that technical difficulties were behind the high number of dropped call complaints over the last few months.
“But it is not as bad as people portray it, and according to leading providers including Ericsson, Lebanon is among the top 50 percent in terms of dropped call rates,” he said.
He also noted that there have been significant improvements since August.
The government, not just touch, is responsible for boosting the network’s capacity to handle traffic by investing in the industry, Bassil said.
“The current Cabinet has been rapidly meeting our requests for investments. But sometimes a lot of discussions happen before some plans are endorsed. A private mobile operator has much more flexibility,” he said.
As the upgrade from 2G networks to 3G networks took place, touch and Alpha faced serious challenges to keep up quality of service, Bassil said.
While the 2G (GSM) networks are broadcast on a 900 megahertz spectrum band, the new 3G network uses a 2,100 megahertz band which – because of its higher frequency rate – is transmitted on a smaller coverage radius.
Because 3G was installed in the same locations used to broadcast GSM, users during the upgrade period were often bouncing from 2G to 3G, and thus suffered disruptions in service.
Some illegally imported mobile handsets are also responsible for poor service, Bassil added.
Under the extension of their contracts, touch and Alpha have been commissioned to build 400 new stations and install 1,200 antennas across the country.
For the 3G network to be optimized, Bassil said, around 400 more broadcast stations are needed across the country.
Around 50 are needed to eliminate coverage gaps.
A year of fine tuning is needed before the reliability of the networks can be optimized, he said, adding that infrastructure upgrades will be an initial priority.
Lebanon’s mobile sector is owned entirely by the government, which relies on the lucrative business for billions of dollars in revenue.
Some experts say the government-enforced monopoly over the sector renders it slow in endorsing new technologies and services.
Other analysts insist that telecom revenues are essential to reduce the budget deficit.
Bassil added that billing customers based on seconds rather than minutes was unlikely because of the impact it would have on revenues.
Nonetheless, he said new bundles and off-peak charges are regularly introduced and will help cut costs for users.
For example, touch is launching a friends and family calling plan soon, he said.
A number of mobile operators in the West have subcontracted support operations and focused on offering a high quality service while increasing revenues, Bassil said.
“But such a transformation has yet to happen in Lebanon,” he noted.
“We still have over 50 percent of employees doing support functions including maintenance, refueling generators, and so on. This is very inefficient,” he said, hinting that this is a result of government ownership of the sector.
When asked about the future prospects of the sector, Bassil said mobile operators should firmly endorse new services and diversify revenue streams. “Say we take the decision to build a 4G network today, it would take at least two years before such a plan is realized,” he said.