‘Fast’ Internet unveiled, but is it worth celebrating?

BEIRUT: Lebanese Internet users are burning with anticipation as the government has finally agreed to release desperately needed bandwidth from a state-of-the art 3.84 terabit per second undersea cable, which has been sitting idle on the shores of Tripoli since its launch last December.

Named after its transcontinental route, the India-Middle East-Western Europe cable is being touted by the Lebanese state as a savior to the country’s glacial Internet speed, which is ranked among the slowest in the world.

In addition to improving connections at home, the IMEWE will provide broadband access to consumers on their cell phones via 3G, a technology that was first introduced a decade ago to consumers in other countries.

Telecoms Minister Nicolas Sehnawi has promised no more delays, saying services will improve “in the coming weeks” and ministry officials are touting a “dramatic increase” in the Internet speeds that will be offered to consumers. Sehnawi vows to continue the policy of his predecessor Charbel Nahhas, who told The Daily Star last month that the enhanced web connections, particularly over 3G, would “change the face of telecom” in Lebanon. But Lebanese web users have heard those grandiose statements before.

"Lebanon was outside the knowledge economy," Telecoms Minister Marwan Hamadeh said in 2007 during the launch of DSL services at that time. "Now it enters through the front door."

And yet four years later, Lebanon’s information economy is stymied by connectivity rates that trail behind states like Zambia and Tanzania, where speeds are twice as fast while GDP per capita ratios are one tenth that of Lebanon. Even war-ravaged Iraq and Afghanistan have been rated faster than Lebanon today.

“It was more like entering [the knowledge economy] through a small window,” said Diana Bou Ghanem, head of the the ministry’s ICT office, when asked about Hamade’s comments in 2007.

At the time, Lebanon was one of the few country’s still reliant on ancient dial-up connections and the ministry seemed to be catapulting the economy forward by offering speeds “up to” 2 megabits per second. Or so it seemed. At $200 per month, these top-end DSL connections would surpass the vast majority of household budgets and most Lebanese opted instead for fractional 256 kilobits per second connections at $25 per month. As a result, Lebanon now tops the list of countries connected at such primitive speeds, with over 60 percent of the population plodding along at 256 kbps according to global content delivery provider Akamai’s “State of the Internet” report for the first quarter of 2011.

But at her ministry desk, buried in stacks of files and paperwork, Bou Ghamen is upbeat. She says prices will remain roughly the same but speeds could range up to 8 mbps, a veritable quantum leap for Lebanese web users. Yet again, this will be the high end. Average Internet speeds will increase by a factor of two to three, she said. With Lebanon currently ranking 168 out 170 countries, according to the Net Index by Okala, a doubling or tripling of speeds is not exactly saying much.

Even if speeds were quadrupled, Lebanon could find itself positioned somewhere in between Sri Lanka (ranked 151) and Nepal (ranked 121), which both boast average speeds higher than 1 mbps according to Okala, a U.S.-based broadband testing firm.

Ministry officials excitedly claim Lebanon will soon be on a par with international standards. But even if speeds are quadrupled today, the country’s web community will lag behind regional competitors Jordan and Qatar which enjoy average speeds in excess of 2 mbps or the United Arab Emirates at an average of 8 mbps.

When asked about the Okala survey, which is widely quoted in the local and international press, some ministry officials were quick to doubt its accuracy, though they didn’t seem immediately familiar with it.

Other officials suggested that countries with faster Internet speeds have more wealth or resources than Lebanon. That may sometimes be true, however Latvia, which has a per capita income similar to Lebanon, ranks among the fastest countries in the world with average speeds of 20 mbps, according to Okala. It is worth nothing that Bangladesh, Bhutan and nearly the whole of sub-Saharan Africa also rank above Lebanon.

Former minister Nahhas has often stated that new speeds could reach 20 mbps on the 3G network, although many countries are now migrating away from that decade old technology to 4G. Even if speeds up to 20 mbps are offered – “up to” being a key qualifier – it is unclear how affordable 3G services will be or what bandwidth restrictions they may entail.

While high speeds are essential, their usefulness drops dramatically when stringent bandwidth restrictions are applied.

Many countries offer unlimited bandwidth, allowing citizens to harness the full potential of their networks by making broad use of video streaming and conferencing, two increasingly essential platforms in global business and communications.

In Lebanon however, average users are restricted to 3 GB per month, which barely covers a couple of conference calls or videos per week. What’s more, Lebanese consumers are currently charged an exorbitant rate of around $17 per each additional gigabyte that exceeds such negligible quotas.

Now ministry sources say bandwidth caps will be raised in line with speeds by a factor of two to three. Yet with such low rates to begin with, Lebanese consumers will still find themselves left behind individuals in other developing countries as they quickly integrate into global information economies.

In comparison to Lebanon’s single digit caps, some U.S. telecom companies have recently instituted bandwidth caps at 250 GB per month drawing much criticism from consumers. The popular site TechCrunch has described Australia’s 200 GB bandwidth cap as “stone age” while a recent proposal to institute caps in Kuwait drew such an uproar from online activists that the government swiftly promised to withdraw the measure. “The Internet has become a cornerstone in development, economy and everyday life in Kuwait,” the country’s telecoms minister, Salem al-Uthayna, said last month in explaining the decision to abolish caps.

Yet despite the continuation of caps in Lebanon, ministry officials here seem to believe there will be plenty of Internet to go around.

“We will have an overflow of capacity with IMEWE,” said Telecoms Minister Adviser, Antoine Boustani. “We could even distribute the excess to other countries.”

Considering that upcoming upgrades will keep Lebanon’s average speed well below global standards, such a scenario will be hard to imagine. It would be akin to suggesting Lebanon could sell electricity to other countries when it can barely supply minimum capacity to its own citizens. To be fair, the ministry is currently building a fiber optic local network, which officials say could offer average speeds of “up to” 10 mbps when it is completed next year.

For now though, Internet will still reach homes over the existing copper telephone network, which was enabled to carry data as early as 2005, well ahead of the 2007 DSL launch. Despite the allure of the new IMEWE cable, which cost the treasury $45 million to invest in, Lebanon is already connected to a number of other submarine cables, which could have carried greater Internet capacity to local consumers years ago.

Why that did not happen remains a mystery when asked of both individuals attached to the current administration, which has held the ministry for the past three years, or the previous one, which held the ministry three years prior to that.

“It was never clear to me why they didn’t buy more bandwidth,” says MP Ghazi Youssef, who has worked on telecom issues since the early 2000s under the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A billionaire telecoms mogul himself, Hariri saw privatization as the best solution to providing efficient state services, but Youssef says these efforts were torpedoed by opposition members at the time. Similarly, recent telecoms ministers say Ogero, the state-supervised telecom company established under Hariri, has obstructed their efforts to increase capacity under the government’s authority.

Though the IMEWE was ready for service last December, current ministry officials say essential agreements were not released by the head of Ogero, Abdel Mon’em Youssef, until last month.

In fact, Ogero had planned to host a huge party announcing the IMEWE cable last December, under the auspices of then Prime Minister Saad Hariri. According to sources close to the affair, it was to feature a seated dinner for some 500 persons at the prestigious Pavillion Biel, prime time live television coverage and even Lebanese Opera singer Hiba Kawas, who was commissioned to write a song for the event, performed with a full orchestra. Despite the fact that the Lebanese leadership failed to deliver broadband to its citizens for the past decade, some 10 trophies were to be crafted by the Lebanese sculptor Rudy Rahme and distributed to various officials.

But all this was cancelled when then Telecoms Minister Nahhas received an invitation and challenged Ogero’s role in managing the IMEWE cable and the prime minister’s patronage of it.

It remains unclear who would have paid for the event and despite multiple telephone calls and several messages left with secretaries, Ogero head Abdel Mon’em Youssef could not be reached for comment.

Needless to say, questions about the past are not entertained enthusiastically by either camp.

“It’s better to look for solutions – play it in a positive way,” said Abu Ghanem, who has worked at the ministry for 15 years. “I don’t want to blame anyone. Just let us work and let us deliver.”

Yet having trailed far behind global telecom trends for a decade, industry experts say at least thousands of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in investments have already been lost to other countries with modern connectivity. In the absence of accountability, many question the state’s ability to govern the sector going forward, especially with the breakneck pace of technology and increasing dependence on the Internet for economic growth. Others see matters differently.

“It’s a shame to criticize the government right now,” said a private sector source close to major government telecom projects. “Let’s give it a chance.”

“OK we are last in Internet [speed] but we are better at other things,” the source added. “Look at the price of real estate in Beirut.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 15, 2011, on page 4.




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