Perhaps it was naive to be thinking of possible questions for the telecom minister, as I was driving to the Telecom Ministry’s “Let’s Connect” event, held late last month.
Advertised as “the launching ceremony” of the Ministry’s 2011-2012 annual progress report, I expected a typical government press conference: Officials speak their propaganda and then journalists get a few minutes to yell out some questions. And of course there are so many questions to ask about Lebanon’s internet, which despite recent improvements, remains one of the slowest, most expensive and least reliable connections in the world.
As blazing broadband speeds spread out across the globe, enabling high definition content and live broadcasting, Lebanese users still approach every youtube clip with paranoid intrepidation. How long will this take to load? Will it kill my roommate or spouse’s connection? Do I even have enough credit to watch this video? Or will it push me over my monthly quota, suspending my account entirely and thus forcing me out in the rain to buy a recharge card?
How to frame these concerns into one or two questions was my preoccupation while searching earnestly for the location in the early November darkness of Beirut’s unlit streets. Expecting a drab government office building, I pulled up to find a giant canvas tent illuminated by spotlights with fleet of valets at the door. After warily handing over the keys, I was greeted by two rows of smiling hostesses, dressed in black short-skirt suits and heels. It felt like a scene out of an exaggeratedly sexist Robert Palmer video.
But unlike the tuxedo-sporting 1980s pop star, I was wearing jeans and sneakers and suddenly felt underdressed as I stepped deeper into the venue.
The interiors were all space-age minimalism with white leather couches and bar stools anchored by backlight tables.
Black-tie servers glided past carrying trays of wine, shrimp and swirled pate hors d’oeuvres.
Along the the fringes of this were exhibition stalls promoting companies like Samsung and Ericsson as well Lebanon’s mobile operators Touch and Alfa. It was posh rooftop club meets Dubai trade show.
Alfa’s stand adverstised moblie TV “soon.” But how soon is soon?
Why was I here again? Oh yeah, the minister’s speech and the crappy internet. Right.
Finally after half an hour of waiting around–watching the place fill up with middle-aged suits and red lipstick socialites–Wagner’s majestic opera “Ride of the Valkyries” begins to play from a stage. As the horn crescendo neared, a female MC was shooting off the ministry’s accomplishments, featured in big bold letters on a massive 16 panel high definition wall. They included upgrading the national average internet speed to 1 megabit per second and the launch of 3G broadband on mobile phones.
Undoubtedly, these were substantial improvements from last year, but were they actual accomplishments, worthy of a Skybar-like champagne party?
Yes the average download speed of 1mbps is faster than the dial-up levels of last year, but it’s still less than one twelfth of the global average. This means most Lebanese still cannot stream even low resolution content (forget about high definition) let alone share it. Posting a video could take hours if not days to upload. Lebanon currently ranking at the bottom of netindex.com’s global average upload speed at 174 out of 178 countries surveyed.
As for 3G, this too is an improvement from the antiquated GPRS used until last year. But 3G arrives 10 years late to Lebanon, as much of the world is moving on to 4G. Yet the Minister had a surprise rolled up his sleeve.
Following the initial presentation, tonight’s event would witness the first 4G test in Lebanon demonstrated by Lebanon’s two mobile providers who took the stage next. Touch streamed the infamous “Gangnam Style” music video during its 4G test while Alfa spoke glowingly about their plans to release mobile TV packages. Both promised subscribers would soon be able to watch live news, even movies on their cell phones.
But no release dates were provided for any of this, and as it stands today, the cost of mobile bandwidth is so prohibitive (up to $100 per gigabyte) subscribers would need to pay a fortune to watch any sort of television content on a cell phone. And that’s if they can get a clear signal. Coverage on the network is so spotty that connections can fall dramatically from 3G to 2G on the same city block, while many rural and urban areas remain uncovered.
Easy billing? Maybe if you are a millionaire. Current cost of one gig on 3G is up to $100 per month.
I had hoped to ask the minister about all of these issues following his speech, but when he finally approached the podium–following an odd series of presentations promoting Samsung and Ericsson products–he spoke briefly about technical issues, thanked the audience and then exited stage left. No questions taken.
In fact, despite all the press invitations and camera crews that showed up, this was not a press conference at all. This was an event aimed at promoting the ministry and the private corporations it has chosen to promote.
Samsung demonstrates the wonders of it’s Galaxy Note III
Huawei showed off its “ultra broadband” hologram technology, though most local users cannot stream youtube.
But the Lebanese news channels–there were at least 10 cameras present– ate it up anyway. In fact, most seemed to have realized the event’s unimportance in advance, merely sending cameramen without reporters.
Never mind that audiences across the country are suffering from lack of water, electricity and roads–and nowhere near enough news crews to cover it all. The Minister had something to say (and a few companies to advertise)–and the media, partly out of a desire to please authority, partly out of laziness– would just “run it” as is.
With no journalists to ask questions, there were no answers for the public. When will speeds improve? When will prices become affordable? When will new technologies be released? It was only when I approached the head of Alfa after everyone was leaving, that he told me quietly that 4G would not actually be available to consumers until late 2013.
As the event came to a close, a live jazz band began to play.
It all felt very familiar. In late 2010, another internet party was scheduled to take place at an upscale Beirut convention center. It was to feature a seated dinner for 500 persons, live television coverage and a Lebanese opera singer, who had composed a song specifically for the event. Despite the obsolete state of the internet at the time, officials were to make speeches touting upcoming promises and statues were to be awarded to officials for their “accomplishments.”
Invitation to Ogero’s fancy opera party that never happened.
The event was to be hosted by former prime minister Saad Hariri, but it was briskly canceled when he lost power to the incoming government dominated by former general Michel Aoun. The party cancellation set into motion a year of delays whereby telecom bureaucrats loyal to Hariri clashed with those loyal to Aoun. Consumers paid the price, as no improvements were made and Lebanon’s internet eventually dipped to the world’s absolute slowest.
That Hariri’s government attempted to throw a lavish party celebrating marginal improvements in internet speed when the country the country still lagged behind the rest of the world seemed wasteful at best. For his opponents who lead the ministry today, it was mocked as a shameless act of self promotion, and one completely out of touch with consumer frustrations.
Yet one year later, as the elite guests began leaving tonight’s party, each was handed a glossy 32-page booklet detailing the ministry’s reported-accolades.
Hundreds of glossy copies were distributed
Full of technical data and PR speak, average consumers will find it difficult to interpret and few answers to explain why Lebanon’s internet speed remains one of the world’s slowest and most expensive.
On the other hand, the booklet also features nine pictures of the minister either meeting with other officials, examining communications equipment or simply posing in front of it.