BEIRUT: In most countries, people who do Mireille Raad’s job have no trouble working from home. As a freelance software developer, the technology exists for her to send clients her work via email, or access their computers remotely in order to resolve any issues.
In Lebanon, Raad spends two hours most days traveling to clients from her home in Batroun. The problem is that while Raad has access to the latest technology, Lebanon’s Internet connections are stuck in the early ‘90s. Earlier this month, the country’s Internet speeds were declared the slowest in the world by the website speedtest.net.
“Are you going to send [big files] by Liban Post?” Raad asks. “And wait until the next day for the client to get it and then call him to tell him how to use it?”
Raad estimates that her productivity is cut by at least 30 percent a month, factoring in poor speeds and extra travel. She also faces high prices, paying $70 a month for her connection.
In a 2008 survey by the Telecoms Regulatory Authority (TRA), the independent body funded by the state to regulate the industry, Lebanon came out with the most expensive Internet in the region for 1mbps of ADSL, while 46 percent of people surveyed said they thought their monthly rate was too high.
There are manifold reasons for the high prices and slow speeds. The country has, as Mahmoud Haidar, an adviser to caretaker Telecommunications Minister Charbel Nahhas puts it, “much more than we need” in terms of bandwidth coming in to the country, thanks to cables from Cyprus, and another from India to Europe, across the Middle East (IMEWE).
And in a news conference in September last year, Nahhas said new projects to be implemented that year would increase capacity by 168 times. Yet nothing has changed for users.
The holdup has been variously blamed on mismanagement at the ministry and Ogero, the state-owned telecoms operator, as well as a failure to liberalize the industry – as was mandated in 2002’s Law 431 – restricting investment in infrastructure. “For many years, Internet has been seen as a way to raise revenues,” for the government, Haidar says.
A national fiber-optic backbone is also under construction, expected to be completed by July of next year, to improve the reach and reliability of Internet connections. According to Riad Bahsoun, a telecoms expert and vice chairman of the SAMENA Telecommunications Council, the telecoms industry has simply not received the political commitment it deserves. “They do not understand” the industry and the technology, he says.
One thing all experts and semi-experts agree on is that it doesn’t have to be this way. According to Haidar, necessary changes could be made in matter of “weeks.”
A couple of months ago, feeling frustrated, Raad and several other self-confessed “techies” were conversing on Twitter when they decided to make a stand, and last week launched a campaign, Ontornet, at ontornet.org (Ontor being “to wait” in Arabic), to agitate for a better service.
“We said that we also wanted to do a protest, and that our banner would say ‘We’re not leaving here until the YouTube movie buffers,’” Abir Ghattas, a software engineer and one of the co-founders, says. “It was a joke but we believe Internet issues here in Lebanon are worth protesting for.”
For those behind Ontornet, a solution to the problem is more important than working out who is responsible. “I don’t care who’s right, who’s wrong,” says Raad.
Assigning responsibility for the problems in the telecommunication sector, an industry that has long been highly politicized, invites a debate Ontornet is not interested in. “You point a finger at any entity and it will be translated [politically] somehow,” says Jad Hamdan, a telecom engineer and member of the group. “That’s what we don’t want.”
The bottom line is that slow Internet is a barrier to investment and growth. A 2009 World Bank assessment, requested by the Ministry of Finance, reported that a 10 percent increase in speed could lead to a 1.38 percent increase in GDP growth.
Speaking last week at ArabNet – a web industry conference – Imad Hoballah, the acting president of the TRA, said Lebanese companies lose thousands of work hours a year because of slow Internet and estimated 5,000 hours to be worth half a million dollars to each company.
As more and more companies are concentrated online, Lebanon looks less of an attractive investment opportunity.
“It was certainly a consideration for us,” says Sohrab Jahanbani, the co-founder of group buying website GoNabit.com, founded in the UAE in January 2010 and which began operations here in October. “We had to consider whether to come here or go somewhere with better infrastructure.”
But Jahanbani says that despite the barriers to access, e-commerce has proved successful in Lebanon. “Imagine how much more success we can have if Internet access is more ubiquitous and cheaper,” he says. “There is a huge amount of latent demand.”
Ontornet is not the first public campaign to push for better Internet, but it seems the drive is now gathering momentum. A recent Facebook group, Lebanese Want Fast Internet, has gained over 20,000 fans since it started earlier this month, and meets this week to finalize a campaign strategy. A separate protest is planned for April 17 in Tripoli at the site of the IMEWE cable to argue for faster and cheaper connections.
“People are very much right to be frustrated,” says Haidar. At this stage, he says, a new Cabinet is required to fix the deadlock in both the management of the services to provide faster connectivity, and to implement a lower pricing structure.
“Internet companies, we are suffering big time,” says Bob Debbas, who owns mygraphicstudio.com, a website for sourcing graphic designers. “I have paid thousands for online content that I need to train my employees, and I can’t use it.” Debbas, who spent 32 years in the U.S. before returning to Lebanon last year, has company offices across the world. “I wanted to invest in Lebanon, because I believe in Lebanon,” he says.
“Potentially, we have everything to create an amazing telecom industry.” But, as things stand, he says “how are you going to attract foreign investment, when there is no internet?”