Here’s a copy of my cover story for this month’s issue of Bold Magazine:
WEB OF DECEIT: HOW LEBANON’S INTERNET FAILED BUSINESS
By Habib Battah
There were no tweets, no angry blog posts, not even a boo from the audience of spunky young web developers and entrepreneurs last month, when a government official admitted that Lebanon would fail to achieve real broadband speeds for at least “three to four” more years.
Sure it was Friday afternoon and the hipster tweeps may have been exhausted after attending four days of talks and workshops at the Arabnet Digital Summit at a posh Beirut hotel. But for any seasoned cynic of the Lebanese public sector, the audience’s silence speaks to the endemic level of muted, hold-your-tongue diplomacy one often encounters when asking questions about Lebanon’s heinously slow internet, which continues to be one of the worst connections on earth. With the names of bureaucrats often spoken in hushed tones, the internet has become such a “sensitive” topic that many officials and business leaders refuse to even discuss it with journalists at all.
Not so for the current administration of Telecom Ministry officials who have hailed what they say is the emancipation of the sector after years of state negligence and corruption. And yet speaking on a panel ambitiously titled “Building Digital Hub in Beirut,” Ministry Advisor Firas Abi Nassif conveyed the realism that Arabnet’s conversations on the latest trends in web content and delivery would not apply to Lebanon before 2015 or 2016, according to government estimates.
He was joined onstage by an assortment of other officials who offered the usual platitudes and buzzwords under the gilded chandeliers of the ornate conference hall. They voiced the oft-heard refrain of “transforming Lebanon into a digital economy,” creating laws to entice investors, incubation opportunities for start-ups and yes another study–an innovation survey– that would be ready in six months, according to Salam Yamout, the country’s national ICT coordinator.
“Never have I seen so much energy in Lebanon,” she said, marveling at the number of cabinet members now equipped with Ipads and Twitter accounts. “There is a true will to make things happen.”
There has also been no shortage of hype.
Since the laying of a new fiber optic undersea cable along the Lebanese sea floor in late 2010, politicians have attached miracle-like attributes to the cord, dubbed India Middle East Western Europe (IMEWE) after its transcontinental route. Having dished out $45 million to join its multi-country consortium, the government’s hope is that IMEWE will catapult Lebanon’s internet out of the 1990s dial-up speeds where it has been frozen for the better part of the last two decades.
Still, due to vaguely explained– “sensitive” of course– political reasons, the IMEWE cable was not officially “lit” or activated for nearly a year, until the summer of 2011, at which point newly appointed Telecom Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui began evangelizing the ‘digital economy’ potentials, much as his predecessors have done since the dawn of the new millenium.
By August 2011, he was promising the public that Lebanon would become a world leader in connectivity, with the potential of rivaling even its sworn enemy and tech giant neighbor: “The battle with Israel can be economic and it can be done here,” Sehnaoui said during a visit to Berytech, a leading incubator facility that funds and houses a handful of web-based local start-ups.
Then, a couple of weeks later, Sehnaoui called a press conference to raise the bar even higher than the $30 billion plus output of thousands of Israeli high tech firms, dozens of which are listed on the NASDAQ. Lebanon, the minister said, would soon become “one of the most advanced countries in the field of information technology and multimedia creativity.”
STILL NEAR THE BOTTOM
And in a series of newspaper and television interviews that followed, he promised consumers an “up to eight times” speed increase beginning October 1.
Now, eight months after that much-touted deadline, Lebanon still places near the bottom of the global household download speed index– ranked 161 out of 174 countries by US broadband tester Ookla. That’s a nine position jump from last summer when Lebanon ranked near dead last at 170th place, but not much to write home about either.
Far from the promise of “up to eight times faster” Lebanon’s national average actually experienced a far more marginal improvement, only doubling from 0.5 megabits per second (mbps) to around 1 mbps today, according to Netindex. The situation is even more bleak in terms of upload speed, where Lebanon continues to hold the title of world’s absolute slowest at 0.23 mbps.
At those ancient speeds, the “multimedia creativity” the minister has spoken about will be stymied by inability to broadcast or view the most basic of streaming video, let alone the rich media applications that have already changed the face of the content industry worldwide.
For some perspective, average Lebanese consumers now receive one tenth the global average download speed, which was recorded at 10 mbps at the time of publishing. Even at a regional level, Lebanon is far behind the rest of the Arab world, both the rich Gulf countries and also poorer nations such Jordan, Palestine and war-torn Iraq, countries where GDP per capita rates are less than half that of Lebanon. Even some of the world’s poorest countries such as Madagascar and Rwanda have double Lebanon’s current “upgraded” speed.
The problems of Lebanon’s internet are manifold. On a technical level, the existing infrastructure comprises of an outdated copper telephone network, which the Ministry says is incapable of delivering high speeds to consumers. That is why it is building an internal fiber optic network to replace it, which as Abi-Nassif indicated, will take three to four years to complete and could eventually provide a massive increase in household bandwidth. But considering the rapid pace of web development, three to four years is an eternity in this fast paced industry. In the meantime, ISPs say the current copper network can handle up to 5 mbps for nearly 90 percent of consumers–that’s a fivefold increase on today’s current average speed of 1 mbps.
Fortunately, now that the IMEWE is active, the Telecom Ministry can finally buy the type bandwidth that would allow an average speed 5 mbps, which would put Lebanon ahead of nearly all its regional competitors, even on a par with some European states such as Italy and Croatia.
But the country is currently only subscribed to around 20 gigabits per second, which is less than 20 percent of the IMEWE’s capacity. This costs the government roughly $40,000 per month, “nothing” according to advisor Abi-Nassif, seeing that the Ministry collects some $2 billion per year from the state-owned telecom sector.
So why not buy more bandwidth?
“Because we don’t need it,” he said in an interview with Bold. “We are not seeing a lot of people requesting upgrades. People are happy with 1mbps.”
For anyone who has lived or worked outside Sub-Saharan Africa–or has simply agonized over the time it takes to load the simplest of web pages– that assessment may be a little hard to digest.
The current average speed of 1 mbps is indeed adequate for the type of light browsing of decades past, but it does not support video streaming at average rates, much less high definition, which has become standard in the global media and content creation industry.
In fact, a online survey carried out in late March by the nearly 50,000-strong Facebook group “Lebanese Want Fast Internet, revealed that the vast majority of some 400 respondents were not happy with their new DSL internet speeds.
But the Ministry is not alone in its positive assessment of the status quo. Lebanon’s internet service providers also believe the new packages exceed expectations, namely when it comes to monthly usage caps. While unlimited bandwidth packages are available at ISPs across the world, including regional countries like Egypt, the U.A.E. and Kuwait, Lebanese internet users are faced with some of the world’s most prohibitive usage policies, with monthly caps as low 4GB per month. That’s barely enough to watch a handful of videos, let alone join the knowledge economy in any significant shape or form.
Still, Habib Torbey, head of IDM, which is one of Lebanon’s largest internet service providers, believes the current caps are reasonable.
“The caps we have today are very adequate to what we perceive as being needs of residential customer,” he told Bold.
“Very few of the customers are reaching the cap.”
While that may be true, many question the wisdom of accessing actual user needs based on current browsing behavior. After all, Lebanese internet users have been conditioned over the last two decades to limit their consumption due to prohibitive costs of bandwidth.
At the Arabnet conference for example, much of the buzz circulating among attendees centered on rich content delivery including gaming, mobile video and distance learning. But while these applications may be accessible to many of the Arab attendees when they return home, they remain largely theoretical for their Lebanese counterparts who lack the capacity needed to access them outside the conference hall.
“I don’t click on video links,” admitted Arabnet CEO, Omar Christidis.
With a home internet connection of just 1mbps, he says the low amount of content consumed by Lebanese users is inevitably the result of the limited bandwidth.
“I would consume twice as much content if I could see it faster,” he explained.
Indeed with operating systems and applications growing increasingly complex, current caps can barely sustain software updates, let alone enjoyment of content.
But IDM’s Torbey, who is also president of the Lebanese Telecommunications Association thinks such claims are a bit exaggerated.
“You won’t need more than 3-5 software updates per year,” he said.
Social media gurus would beg to differ.
“Our personal usage has grown tremendously over the last three years,” said Ayman Itani, the founder and CEO of Thinkmedia Labs, a Beirut-based digital and social media agency.
He says one only needs to look at the burgeoning marketplace of applications and the continuous updates each requires. And with sophisticated new viewing devices such as the Ipad 3, individual applications now require downloads as large as nearly 1GB. While users in other Arab countries will not have to worry so much about file sizes, Lebanese consumers are likely to be far more cautious about what they consume, purchase or produce.
“A lot of users apply self-throttling to make sure that by the end of month they still have internet capacity,” Itani said.
Obviously such a chilling effect could discourage the type of digital economy that the government says it is trying to enable. But if there exists a growing divide between bandwidth suppliers and the younger generation in terms of internet needs and assessment, one would be hard pressed to detect this from the Telecom Minister Sehnaoui’s public communications.
“Telecom is going great,” he tweeted earlier this year. “We have pushed the country 12 years ahead in DSL and 15 years ahead in 3G.”
Both Itani and Christidis are uncomfortable evaluating the minister’s statements. After all, Sehnaoui was a keynote speaker at Arabnet and has been one of the most active ministers on Twitter. He frequently responds to questions and has asked the online community to be patient and “positive.” Christidis says Sehnaoui helped provide 100 megabits of bandwidth for the conference, over three times that available last year, which witnessed some embarrassing moments of downtime, with some calling the conference to be moved to Jordan or Egypt.
“I really like the minister,” Christidis said. “I genuinely believe he is doing his best.”
HACKACTIVISTS IN ACTION
A more detached and sober view of the situation has been provided by Ontornet, a group of young hackactivists, programmers and web designers that have begun a non-profit blog to collect technical data on Lebanon’s connectivity problems.
“It’s not that he’s pushing the country forward,” said Ontornet member Mirelle Raad in response to the Minister’s tweet. “We are barely catching up.”
Ontornet rose to prominence on Twitter early last year by popularizing its namesake hashtag “#ontornet”, an Arabic play on words that literally translates to “wait-net”. Both Sehnaoui and his predecessor have taken notice of the group’s popularity among Lebanese bloggers and tweeps and agreed to interviews to answer technical questions, which have been recorded and posted on the Ontornet blog.
While Raad feels the government does indeed believe progress is being made, this is not necessarily in sync with the perception of the younger, more active online community: “We are from different generations,” she said. “They are light internet users.”
Although the minister has agreed to participate in a tweet-up and answer a number of the group’s questions, other members have expressed reservations over vague answers and grandiose statements.
During a meeting last summer, when asked why the IMEWE cable had been delayed for over a year the minister responded jokingly by saying snowfall in Tripoli had been a factor. He then added: “This is too investigative, I cannot answer.”
Like any good Lebanese public sector soap opera, this is where the story turns political. Sehanawi and his predecessor, Charbel Nahhas, are both members of former General Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. Both men have insisted that a rival Saad Hariri loyalist who occupies a prominent position within the Telecom Ministry, has been halting progress on the internet front. The man, Abdul Menhem Youssef, would be in a position to do so because he is both the chairman and director of Ogero, the state-backed company that maintains the national telephone network and thus distributes bandwidth to ISPs.
The Aounist ministers have insinuated that Youssef is acting on political orders to sabotage their efforts at delivering internet to customers, which could prove damaging in the upcoming parliamentary elections. For his part, Youssef has made it a policy not to speak to the press, despite several attempts made by this reporter as well as Ontornet and other groups.
Members of Hariri’s Future Movement have criticized the Ministry’s handling of the telecom sector, but have not been able to speak directly to the alleged Ogero-Youssef bottleneck issue. Some claim he is not answering their calls either.
On the occasion of April Fool’s Day, Minister Sehnaoui tweeted that Youssef had written him “a touching letter” promising “to stop obstructing all telecom projects.” Joking aside, the indication that Youssef is indeed still holding back additional bandwidth purchased by the ministry casts further doubt on the Minister’s ability to deliver on his string of promises.
Chief among these is the fiber optic to home network, which Ministry Advisor Abi Nassif claims will provide “top notch, world-class” residential data speeds at “50 times” today’s rates and unlimited quotas when it is ready in “three to four” years. In the meantime, over the course of the next year, he imagined speeds may be doubled again and caps increased or even abolished, but could not provide specific details.
Judging by the political obstacles with Ogero, disagreements with community members over speed and capacity requirements– and the skittishness of industry leaders to do anything about it but be “diplomatic”– it may take a significant amount of pressure from citizen groups like Ontornet, and perhaps a bit of divine intervention, to see the ministry’s lofty promises delivered.
Raad says Minister Sehnaoui’s use of Twitter is “interesting” in that a communication channel has been opened and dialog has begun.
But she adds: “It’s not about attitude, it’s about work that needs to be done, infrastructure that needs to be built and sharing transparent progress reports with consumers by making data accessible on the ministry website.”
“On Twitter, he is making himself accessible, but he is not making information accessible. I don’t know if its purely to communicate better or just another political tactic.”
— *Correction: the last name of the Ontornet member quoted in the article has been corrected in this updated version, as well as in the print magazine.