For several consecutive days last week, I wasn’t able to make Skype calls (neither video or voice). I was barely able to even load photos in my Facebook newsfeed. Though I’m paying for a 1mbps connection–the basic and most common plan in Lebanon–I was actually getting speeds lower than dial-up era 256K:
I tweeted the problem and the telecom minister Nicolas Sehnaoui promptly responded. Though I live in Hamra, in the heart of Beirut, he seemed to suggest my problem was isolated, asking for my phone number and location and promising to send a ‘team’ to check it out.
I sent him my number, but no one called and nothing improved.
So a couple of days later I called my provider, Ogero, which is the country’s largest ISP. First they asked if my modem “was on” then they agreed reset my connection. But the problem persisted.
When I called again, they asked what brand of computer I use.
“Do you have a Mac,” the operator asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Yiii, we are always having problems with Macs,” he replied.
What does the brand have to do with it?
The operator offered no intelligible response, but finally agreed to send a technician over.
When the technician arrived the next day, he said my line was “excellent.” And as luck would have it, by the time he showed up my connection was back up to the 0.8 mbps, which despite being over 13 times slower than the global average was “perfect” he said.
So what was the problem?
“It’s the internet,” he said. “Who knows.”
Sensing my incredulous look, he added:
“Maybe something was stuck in the DSLAM… you never know.”
DSLAMs are the rack mounted devices that make DSL possible, installed at telephone exchanges (what we call Centrales) across Lebanon.
Not understanding what “something stuck” with or in the DSLAM meant, I lamented the slow speeds Lebanese consumers face.
“You’re lucky to be getting 0.8 mbps,” he said, adding that many areas are getting half that speed.
Even in Beirut, in the luxury neighborhood of Ramlet El Baida, “we tried everything and still can’t get 1mbps in some places.”
“We have very bad lines,” he said.
This complicated reality on the ground seems to differ from the series of statements produced by the minister over the last year, who has repeatedly promised Lebanon will soon be “one of the most advanced countries” worldwide in the high-tech industry. Despite some recent improvements (we’ve been upgraded from the top 10 to the top 20 slowest download rates in the world) the country still ranks below most of its Arab and African neighbors. Local upload rates remain near rock bottom.
As ministers do, Sehnaoui has blamed someone else for the problem, namely the head of Lebanon’s state telecom operator, Abdul Moneim Youssef, who belongs to an opposing political camp.
Surprisingly, the technician seemed to agree, even against personal interest. “He is obstructing,” he said in a reference to his boss Youssef, a Hariri family-appointee.
Why would the billionaire seemingly ‘pro-busines’ Hariri family approve the obstruction of the internet, a pillar for economic growth?
Was it out of politics, spite?
“Yes,” the technician said.
“Sehnaoui is good. We are the problem. I am with Hariri, but we are not good with the internet.”
“Every decision is political.”
But the problems are deeper than two men. The technician complained that the ministries were stocked with incompetent workers who could not be fired due to their appointment by Lebanon’s political bosses.
At the same time, political disagreement has also prevented the filling of key positions.
Shockingly, the technician said he was one of only 4 technicians working out of Ogero’s call center. “There are 10 of us in total, six work on the telephone network, four work on the internet.”
With Ogero serving some 80 percent of over 200,000 DSL subscribers in Lebanon, it’s hard to believe technical support is served by a staff of four. Or is it?
The minister’s selective power point presentations rarely display negative data. During his recent glitzy annual progress report event, Minister Sehnaoui displayed a number of slides, all of them showing positive growth:
It hard to put such figures into context, because there were no year-on-year comparisons to previous annual cycles.
More importantly no where among this data were problem areas such as lack of staff, poorly connected areas or the frequency of random outages like the one I experienced in the heart of Beirut.
Also missing were indications of bandwidth caps and upload speeds, which remain among the most prohibitive in the world in Lebanon.
Asked about the touting of accomplishments and glazing over of deeply ingrained problems in the network, the technician smiled, writing it off to political rhetoric.
“They like to say they fix things,” he said in a reference to minister’s party.
The notion that my problem was “isolated” in Hamra, as telecom officials would have you believe, is further demystified by the fact that I am around 20 kilometers away from Beirut tonight in Mount Lebanon and my speed is still pathetic.
This time I’m using a 2mbps connection (double that of Hamra) and yet I’m getting the same measely 0.2 mpbs: