Lebanon’s ICT sector is characterized by weak infrastructure, expensive mobile services, and a digital urban-rural divide. But government leaders say they’re working on improvements.
— The telecommunications industry is largely government-owned and tightly regulated.
— State-owned telecom company OGERO has launched a national internet strategy.
— Internet access is still costly
— Internet speed is still below global averages and subject to regional differences.
— People are often reliant on cafés and co-working spaces for stable internet.
Ali Sleiman prefers to work from home. The editor ofNaastopia, a Facebook platform, lives in Rashidieh, a Palestinian refugee camp in Southern Lebanon. "We are trying to counteract the negative image of us that is often presented in the Lebanese media", Sleiman said. That’s why the platform focuses on success stories. "And we mostly present them in the form of short videos."
But the camp's poor internet connection makes his work challenging. "I usually receive one or two videos from nine correspondents each week via a file-hosting service," he explains. "It takes a long time to download the material, edit it and upload it again to Facebook." He says many of the camp’s residents share a Wi-Fi connection in order to save money. Sometimes, Sleiman uses the 4G connection on his mobile phone to do his work, because it’s much faster. "But I can only do that if the network coverage allows it. Otherwise, I leave the camp and go work in an internet café."
Ogero determines the prices
The Rashidieh camp is just 85 kilometers from the Lebanese capital, Beirut. But anyone who wants to access high speed internet needs to either live there or be prepared to dig deep into their pocketbooks. Even then, internet speed is often disappointing.
The country's telecommunications industry is largely in state hands and is subject to strict controls. A single company, Ogero, owns the infrastructure for phone and internet connections; it then sells licenses to service providers. Ogero also consults with the government to determine Wi-Fi pricing and manages over a dozen different internet service providers such as Cyberia, Terranet, Sodetel and IDM. Lebanon also has two state-run mobile phone companies, Alfa and Touch. Prices for internet service are linked to internet speeds, and there is virtually no competition between the two companies, since they share the market equally.
Ogero lowered prices for internet service following protests in 2017. "We have reached a new stage where we could give citizens the right to access cheap and fast internet,” former Telecommunications Minister Jamal Jarrah said at the time. But the cost of mobile internet remains relatively high, compared with other countries in the region. As of January 2018, 500 MB from Alfa or Touch cost $10 (€ 8,50); 5 GB cost $23 (€20).
DSL prices have also been reduced to half of what they were before the reform. Currently, for 2 Mbps for unlimited data (unlimited GB) customers pay around $40, or $60 for 4 Mbps. For $15 per month, consumers can chose to use less data (capped at 40 GB) at a speed of 4 Mbps. In Lebanon, minimum wage workers earn just $450 a month. Some companies with close ties to the government are able to negotiate subsidized rates for internet services. Every time the government decides to lower the prices for internet services, it needs to issue a decree.
Internet cafes and co-working spaces gaining in popularity
Internet cafés are extremely popular in Lebanon. Most of the owners of such cafés have signed expensive contracts with internet providers, allowing them to offer a faster network to their customers. Many customers often sit for hours with their laptops or mobile phones, working, researching or just surfing the internet. The same goes for co-working spaces. "The conventional way of renting an office and fitting it out is very costly", said Zina Bdeir Dajani, founder and head of the co-working space Antwork in Beirut. In addition to weak internet infrastructure, Lebanon also suffers from daily power outages. In Beirut and its surroundings, the outages are fixed at three hours per day. In other cities, it’s often more than three hours; in the refugee camps, outages of six to seven hours a day are common. "We've had a lot of trouble during the summer, with no electricity – but we were operational 24 hours a day, said Bdeir Dajani. The fact that co-working spaces always have power and internet makes them very well-frequented in Lebanon.
Despite Ministry of Telecommunications’s statements that internet speed has improved, the fact remains that Lebanon lags behind. A speed test by OOKLA confirms that the broadband download speed is 6.75 Mbps (as of February 2019), whereas the global average is 55.58 Mbps. On the other hand, Lebanon’s mobile internet connection is above the global average of 25.27 Mbps, with a rate of 40.07 Mbps per download – plus the availability of 4G networks.
Fiber optic cables to replace copper
But this progress does not yet match the level needed to turn Lebanon into an epicenter of the digital economy. According to estimates, 80 to 90 percent of residents have internet access, and nearly 70 percent of households have broadband access – a trend that is on the rise. Network coverage outside of Beirut is already shaky, but the situation in the refugee camps is much worse as the infrastructure there is much more fragile.
In February 2018, Ogero CEO Imad Kreidieh announced a new strategy for Lebanon,Project FTTX. The fiber optic cable network is to be expanded and made available to almost all households and offices within three and a half years, replacing the country’s outdated copper wire infrastructure. It’s not yet certain whether the plan will be implemented by 2022, as the country’s internet expansion strategy has changed from minister to minister. But even when fast internet is one day readily available in Lebanon, Ali Sleiman is under no illusion that the residents of the refugee camps will benefit. "And even if it is available, it will most likely be far too expensive", he said.
Although the telecommunications infrastructure is to be modernized, administrative, technical and financial questions are still adjudicated by the ministry on the basis of two decrees – numbers 126 and 127 - dating from 1959. A 2002 law is not fully applied. The country’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) is ostensibly an independent body, but various political groups have been able to exert influence over it. The last government refused to recognize the TRA, arguing that it had not implemented its targets, including the privatization of the telecommunications sector. For all intents and purposes, the Ministry for Telecommunications maintains the biggest sway over the country’s ICT sector.
The telecommunications branch is among the highest income generators for the government, which in part uses the funds generated to offset its debts. Should problems with capital flow arise, it will inevitably impact mobile operators’ interactions with their customers.
What experts say:
Layal Bahnam from Maharat Foundation: "Ogero has a plan to move towards fiber optics into 2021. But we don't know whether it's accurate or not. Here at Maharat, we work with different internet providers and still it takes hours to upload a minute-long video. But in central Beirut, it is a bit better."
Mohamad Najem, SMEX: "Internet penetration has increased in the last few years. It's been distributed not only in the city but in other places. We can do better of course, but it's actually not bad."
— A strategy for better, more affordable internet
Quality and speed are not only impacted by the country’s incomplete infrastructure, but also by the absence of a clear policy from the Ministry of Telecommunications. Faster and cheaper internet should be a priority for each minister and not shift with a change of minister.
— No regional difference
Every citizen should have the option to get fast internet. Increasing speeds in the Bekaa area of Lebanon, for example, should be a priority, says Mohamad Najem of Smex.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer