Internet overpricing with impunity

It’s now been two weeks since Lebanese internet service providers began charging customers more money for falsely promised faster internet speeds. Beginning on October 1, Lebanese ISP Cyberia, for example, began charging about $84 per month for a speed of 4mbps, as shown in this zoomed in shot of the receipt above:

However 14 days later, speeds have not changed. In fact, they are slower than ever. Instead of 4mbps, I’m currently getting a mere 0.22 mbps according to speedtest.net:

That’s slower than 1990s era dial-up speeds, and for a price of $84 per month!

What’s worse, when contacted over the phone, Cyberia representatives didn’t seem to think this was such a big deal. “The problem will be fixed soon,” a tech support representative informed me. Hard to believe having been misled before, but even if it were true, who would be accountable for the last two weeks of slow internet at high prices? Would a credit be issued to the perhaps thousands of customers who have overpaid? I was referred to the sales department. But the representative also evaded responsibility for the overcharging, laying blame in the government’s court. Apparently when Telecom Minister Nicolas Sehnawi promised fast internet would be released in late September, the infrastructure was not ready yet. Still, Cyberia offered its customers 4mbps internet and charged $84 for it. Where did that money go?

The Cyberia representative offered no explanation and no credit, saying only “it will be fixed in a couple of days enshallah.” That was four days ago.

Even more insidious has been the lack of accountability at the government level and the media’s participation in their impunity.

Take Minister Sehnawi’s most recent statement published uncritically and in its entirety by The Daily Star, in its latest piece: “Sehnawi says faster internet connections are being delivered.”

Seemingly out of touch with reality, the minister fails to address polls that claim the vast majority of subscribers have yet to receive the services they are paying for. Maybe the lebanese providers should aim to emulate the internet providers Lincoln NE, who aim to provide the best customer experience possible. Instead, Sehnawi focuses his attention on “ministry subscribers” which he claims “have begun” to experience upgrades. Is he talking about ministry employees? It is not entirely clear, but if so, how does such a vague and esoteric statement relate to the overwhelming phenomenon of overpricing and lack of service experienced by the broad constituency he has been appointed to represent?

As a journalist, the saddest link in this chain of public and private sector unaccountability is the nascent and thus complicit role played by the local press. By republishing the minister’s statements without question-without providing the context of reality that readers deserve- the media has become little more than a medium in the hands of government.

Yet this may come as no surprise to regular readers of the paper, which has recently produced imaginative headlines ranging from the patently false: “Fast internet on track despite delay fears” to the wildly outlandish “Sehnawi: Lebanese internet to be world-leading.”

The latter is difficult to fathom considering Lebanon currently ranks as the slowest internet worldwide, beating out Zambia, Swaziland and Bolivia for the dead last spot of 172 out of 172 countries surveyed by the Net Index by Ookla, at the time of publishing this post.

Perhaps the Star’s recent stint of positive coverage is related to a critical piece I wrote for the paper last month:”‘Fast’ internet unveiled, but is it worth celebrating?” Following that article, I received an angry phone call from a high-level ministry official interviewed in the piece, who informed me that I would not be offered any more interviews in the future.

One must wonder. Is access to ministry officials really worth the cost of running propagandistic pieces on their behalf? Readers would hope not, judging by the usefulness of the minister’s recent statements.