The worst of the worst. That is how Lebanon ranks globally in terms of internet download speed according to bandwidth testing site speedtest.net. At 0.48 megabytes per second (Mb/s), the internet in Lebanon is twice as slow as in Ethiopia, and four times worse than in Uzbekistan.
Lebanon’s upload speed, 0.10 Mb/s, is second from the bottom; only the tiny Pacific island state of Vanuatu is slower. This means that uploading files in, say, Zimbabwe, with an upload speed of 1.97 Mb/s, is almost 20 times faster than it is in Lebanon. (The world’s fastest in both upload and download speeds is South Korea.)
The implications of Lebanon’s slow internet are obvious and far-reaching. Not only is it a source of frustration to the individual consumer, but it has a significant effect on the nation’s economy. Indeed, according to a 2009 World Bank study, “a 10 percentage point increase in broadband penetration in Lebanon would result in a recurring 1.38% increase in the growth rate of GDP per capita, equivalent to US $400 million per year.” Furthermore, the treasury would benefit in terms of tax returns from this additional growth, which the study estimated at “US $90 million per year on a recurring basis.”
There are multiple explanations for Lebanon’s poor performance. Until recently, the main issue was bandwidth, or, more simply, there was not enough internet supply coming into the country. However, this has largely been amended since the expansion of bandwidth from the pre-existing international underwater CADMOS cable from Cyprus, as well as the creation of another fiber optic cable linking France to India, which connects to Lebanon via Tripoli.
But while greater bandwidth is now available, the infrastructure within Lebanon is inadequate to support it. To deal with this, the government is currently in the process of constructing a fiber optic network across the country, which is expected to be constructed by February of next year, according to a statement by caretaker Telecom Minister Charbel Nahhas to the Reuters Middle East Investment Summit in October 2010.
This project, as President of Professional Computer Associations of Lebanon Gabriel Deek explained, “will create rings of fiber connectivity in the whole territory of Lebanon that will link all the major cities and locations… and it will provide around 300 points where the fiber will be delivered - such as hospitals, media, banks, universities and government.” All going to plan, these points will see their internet connectivity speed increase “by more than 60 percent,” according to Antoine Boustany, advisor to the telecom minister.
In addition, third generation (3G) technology is being introduced in Lebanon which will enable cell phone users to connect to the internet on their phones at a rate of 20 megs, a connection speed that is 20 times greater than the best connection speed currently available to businesses in Lebanon and 40 times greater than that available to individuals, according to Deek. Through this technology, Boustany said, customers will also benefit from greater connection speeds on their computers, as long as they have access to wifi and purchase a required card.
According to iloubnan, Minister Nahhas announced that 3G technology would be deployed in Lebanon “within a few months.”
But even with these improvements, many argue that more steps need to be taken.
Some question whether aspiring to 3G technology in Lebanon is enough, when other countries are nearing 4G. Moreover, the improvements that are expected to be made through these initiatives still fall far short of the demands of a coalition of businesses and other interested groups in 2008 for each citizen and business to have “access to 100 Mb/s in all major population centers” by 2011. Boustany estimates that by August of this year citizens will start to have access to 20 Mb/s.
Another major concern for citizens and businesses alike is finding a solution to the cost of internet in Lebanon.
Currently, said Riad Bahsoun, vice chair of the Board of Directors of SAMENA Telecoms Council and Chairman of the International Telecommunications Union Cyber City Project, “[Lebanon is] something like 2.5 times to 12 times more expensive than other countries in the region” when it comes to the price of internet for the individual consumer. This is despite the fact that other countries in the region provide a faster connection.
“The bottleneck is that the government has the monopoly on the internet,” said Deek. “The monopoly is in the hands of Ogero, and Ogero is not giving bandwidth to people.”
Deek and others advocate for the liberalization of the market so that the private sector can compete on the provision of services to customers. “If there is competition on the services,” he said, “then we can easily get 20 megs or more because the fiber infrastructure will allow this.”
The National ICT Strategy Coordinator at the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, Salam Yamout, agrees, saying, “It is only through true competitive practices that we will have the best services for the consumer at the best price.” Furthermore, Yamout criticizes the fact that Law 431 of 2002, which was supposed to privatize the telecom sector, has not been implemented.
“ICT in Lebanon is not a priority,” Yamout said. “You always have the political problems, the financial problems, what have you.”
Yamout is “optimistic” that “when the decision makers will understand the problem – and that it’s a fixable one – then they will advance quickly in doing this.” But others are not as hopeful. Bahsoun, for one, said that “where we are today, we will be staying for 16 or 18 months at best.”
What remains to be seen is how the formation of a new cabinet will affect the priority status of ICT in Lebanon, whether the projects that are currently being constructed are completed according to schedule, and if concrete steps are taken to liberalize the market.
Boustany, for one, believes that although the issue has not been decided yet, there “is going to be an open market.” As to when he expects this to occur, he did not say, but stressed that “We cannot make any decision [on the matter] before the new government [is formed].”
As Deek sums up, “The government has all the cards in its hands.”