Internet in Lebanon: Obstruction at the Highest Level
By: Hassan Chakrani
Published Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Decisions by Ogero Telecom chief Abdel-Moneim Youssef, who holds three key positions in the Lebanese telecommunications sector, are blocking the release of available internet bandwidth and costing the state an estimated US$2 million per month in losses.
The good news is that, in about two weeks, DSL internet subscribers can have unlimited bandwidth from midnight to 7am.
The bad news is that the implementation of this process depends on the willingness of Ogero Telecom chief Abdel-Moneim Youssef – who is the chairman of the board of directors and general manager of the state company in addition to being the director of investments and maintenance at the telecommunications ministry – to go along with the plan.
Youssef’s position does not come as a surprise. In the past several years, internet subscribers (and telecom users in general) have become familiar with his strange dealings. He has extraordinary power over the sector, holding multiple official government positions at once.
He therefore has the power to hold up any new initiative related to telecommunications, exploiting the confessional balance in the volatile sector.
Industry representatives have been holding meetings with Prime Minister Najib Mikati in the Grand Serail to resolve the bottlenecks Youssef has created in the telecommunications industry.
Although Mikati has reassured the business community that a resolution is near, things remain the same.
Youssef refuses to carry out the instructions of the telecommunications ministry. He did so under former Minister Charbel Nahhas and continues today with the current Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui.
Representatives from the Association of Banks in Lebanon (ABL); the Lebanese Programmers Association; the Lebanese ICT Association; the Lebanese Telecommunications Association; the Chamber of Trade, Industry, and Agriculture in Beirut and Mount Lebanon; and others met with Mikati two weeks ago.
They were told that a solution to the current problem would be found soon. It has been widely understood for quite some time that this will mean removing Youssef from one of his three positions, which would diminish his grip on the vital telecommunications sector.
A participant in the meeting told Al-Akhbar that the delegation explained to Mikati how internet service providers (ISPs) cannot benefit from the available high bandwidth, which was recently increased substantially to reach 33 Gbps (gigabits per second).
“We explicitly said that Abdel-Moneim Youssef is hindering us from benefiting from this [increase in] bandwidth. He is responsible for the country losing an opportunity to advance technologically and for the treasury losing large sums of money,” he said.
International bandwidth capacity for the internet is critical to the well-being of the economy. Without it, there is no access. If it is blocked, the speed will be reduced and the capability to surf the internet will decline. Money will also be lost on several levels.
As a direct consequence, ISPs from the private sector are forced to purchase extra bandwidth from other sources. They are usually more expensive and less effective in serving the subscribers.
A telecom expert told Al-Akhbar that “for the past six months, ISPs have not received any extra bandwidth from Ogero. They are forced to buy bandwidth from satellite providers and this could be one of the reasons for the recent meeting with Mikati.”
Figures obtained by Al-Akhbar from ISP sources show that the gap between demand and what Youssef provides reaches US$2 million per month in additional bandwidth purchased from the market.
“This is a large sum of money and incurs high tariffs during repayment. We could have received the bandwidth from the telecommunications ministry at lower prices and higher capacities. The treasury could benefit at the same time. It’s a funny situation,” an ISP manager told Al-Akhbar.
He said that the situation in the sector is now “back to what it was” at the time that Youssef was forced to release some bandwidth in the summer of 2011. Back then, it was rumored that Youssef was terrified of the lawsuits against him.
In addition, Youssef still refuses to implement instructions on releasing more bandwidth provided by the IMEWE underwater cable which extends from India and connects to the Lebanese network in Tripoli. The issue was also brought up in a UN report last year.
The report titled Profile of the Information Society in Western Asia 2011 says the use of this cable “has been delayed due to political reasons.”
The ISP manager also said, “every Internet bandwidth reservoir in Lebanon has a faucet. Abdel-Moneim Youssef has complete control over all of them. He opens and closes them as he wishes. Most of the time he keeps them shut.”
He adds that hindrances created by Youssef are “not only related to bandwidth. He is also delaying DSL subscription applications and customs clearance of equipment we need for our work.”
Youssef has now turned to interfering with the telecommunications ministry’s recent decision to make use of Low Usage Hours to reduce costs for users who want to make large downloads and uploads. But the ministry cannot promise this will actually happen.
The proposed unlimited period requires high quantities of bandwidth that should be accessible to ISPs who have the subscribers. It will allow them to increase their capacity margin.
The lack of extra bandwidth in the future would lead to reducing speed to 500 Kbps (Kilobits per second) or 300 Kbps, although the lowest subscription speed is currently 1Mbps (Megabits per second).
Telecommunications Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui tells Al-Akhbar that Ogero’s management is required to implement the instructions of his ministry concerning opening up bandwidth at night to allow for unlimited usage.
“All it needs is some programming to suspend the billing during the open period,” he says.
He also points out that Ogero Telecom chief Abdel-Moneim Youssef refuses to obey instructions to distribute E1 lines.
According to Sehnaoui, “Youssef deprives the companies of bandwidth, even refusing to add it to the capacity of the two mobile phone service providers, Touch and Alfa.”
"Here are some quick numbers concerning Internet usage and availability in Lebanon according to the UN report titled Profile of the Information Society in Western Asia 2011:
The “maturity level” reached by Lebanon “in the role of Governments and all stakeholders in building the information society” was 2, with the highest level being 4.
The internet users penetration rate in Lebanon in 2010 is 31 percent according to the International Telecommunications Union. Lebanon ranked 9 out of 14 countries in the ESCWA (Arab countries in Asia plus Egypt and Sudan).
The fixed broadband penetration rate in Lebanon at the end of 2010 was 4.7 percent, which according to the report is a very low rate.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.