BEIRUT: Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb pledged Wednesday to slash the prices of phone and Internet services in under eight weeks.
“I am sure that we can implement these measures in two months and if I had any doubts about our capacity to slash prices within this period of time, I would not have taken this initiative in the first place,” he said during a news conference held at the Telecommunications Ministry.
Harb said his plans could not be implemented until steps were taken by the Finance Ministry.
“I call upon the minister of finance to speed up the procedure that needs to be completed for us to be able to start with our project.”
The minister did not reveal the nature of the procedure.
During the news conference, Harb outlined the measures he intended to achieve before the resignation of the current government.
“We will be reducing the tariff on international calls by 50 percent in addition to reactivating the Telecards and Kalam cards and reducing their prices by 30 percent to 50 percent,” he said.
“We will also be canceling the LL50,000 fixed installation fee of new landlines and reducing the fixed monthly fee paid on landlines from LL12,000 to LL8,000 along with studying the possibility of providing Internet subscribers with an unlimited usage plan,” he added.
In addition, Harb vowed to release the municipalities’ share of the telecoms revenues for the period extending from 2010-13, which amounts to LL257 billion.
“Around 900 municipalities can benefit from this huge amount of money,” he said.
He promised to increase the speed of the Internet and secure basic Internet services for remote areas that do not yet have access.
“We aim at expanding the DSL network to include 50,000 additional users in addition to benefitting from the implementation of the fiber-optics project, which would provide a greater number of people with Internet services,” he said.
The newly appointed minister said that such measures were not usually decided by the Cabinet but by the telecommunications ministers themselves.
“I never violate the law and if such a decision had to be taken by the Cabinet, I’d have gone there directly,” he said.
However, a source from the Finance Ministry told The Daily Star that such an initiative would have to be approved by the Cabinet.
“The Cabinet usually approves such measures only if the minister secures an alternative source of revenue for the Treasury,” the source said.
In the past, former telecommunications ministers have on several occasions submitted plans to slash prices, which were met negatively by previous governments because of the great revenues that the sector generates for the Treasury.
Telecoms generate over $1.5 billion for the Treasury each year.
However, Harb defended the drop in prices, claiming that the reduction of landline tariffs would prompt people to use them instead of Viber, Skype and other free services that are of limited quality.
“If prices of landlines and cellular calls remain high then people will definitely use the free services even if they are not of great quality and we will be losing money,” he said.
“My responsibility is to fight against the illegal means of communications that are being used today,” he added.
In his speech, Harb criticized previous ministers for allegedly violating Law 431, which came into force in 2002 to provide a framework for governing the organization of the telecommunications services sector and to set the rules for its transfer to the private sector.
“The policy that was adopted by previous ministries was completely contradicting Law 431,” he said.
“Instead of adopting the principle of liberalizing the sector according to Law 431, some new constraints were put in place which led to complicating the performance of this sector with routine administrative procedures,” he added.
Harb said that he negotiated with Alfa and touch to renew the two companies’ contracts for three months in order to guarantee that cellular services would not be interrupted.
“We have also managed to reduce the amount of fees required by the two companies for operating for the coming three months by around $5.5 million,” he said, adding that he saved an additional $5.5 million by securing a deal under which the government would not pay the two companies’ operating costs for the initial months of 2014.
During the news conference, a man who was once employed at state-owned telecoms operator Ogero accused the company’s head, Abdel Moneim Youssef, of firing him for supporting Nicolas Sehnaoui, the former telecommunications minister.
“I do not belong to any political party,” said the man, adding that he had served in Ogero for many years and that Youssef had mistreated him.