Last night, hundreds of invited guests were seated in a lavish chandelier hall at the prime minister’s offices or Grand Serail to hear about a fresh strategy that would chart a new future for a country with one of the slowest, unreliable and most expensive telecom networks on earth. In short, over the next five years the Ministry of Telecom is embarking on a groundbreaking roughly $700 million infrastructure plan that will bring 100s of megabits of internet directly to homes across the country via fiber optic cables as well as a massive expansion in 4G coverage. (Currently most Lebanese connect to the internet at glacially slow rates of 1Mbps to 2Mbps and exorbitantly priced 4G coverage is only available in 16 percent of the country.)
But this isn’t the first time beleaguered Lebanese consumers have been promised broadband gold by their successive telecom ministers. As early as 2009 then telecom minister Gebran Bassil vowed to roll out fiber optic coverage to the home “in 10 months” in major neighborhoods in Beirut. Bassil also launched a 5 year policy plan called “Horizon 2013,” which would supposedly ensure “affordable and abundant” internet nationwide by that date. Then, in 2011, Telecom Minster Nicolas Sehnaoui promised a fiber optic network would connect the whole country, feeding hundreds of thousands of homes within “six months.” Even as far back as 2007, then telecom minister Marwan Hamade said a DSL project he was launching would allow Lebanon, which was still on dial-up at the time, to catapult toward the future. “Lebanon was outside the knowledge economy, and now it enters it through the front door,” Hamadeh had said. And yet today, 8 years and many promises and press conferences later, Lebanon is ranked near the bottom of global bandwidth surveys, falling far behind internet speeds in some of the worlds poorest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, Lebanon is probably one of the few countries were people routinely “run out of internet” every billing cycle because monthly bandwidth caps are so low and expensive. ( Every gigabyte of “overuse” is currently priced at an outrageous $100 per gig on 4G)
It’s hard to tell what went wrong with all the old plans because there was very little transparency in the process. Of course politicians love to blame “politics” as the vague obstacle stopping everything, but there are few details about what actually happened to hold anyone or any entity specifically accountable. Can this time be different? What if there was a way to track progress of the 2020 plan?
Despite all the big hopes and presentations yesterday, the ministry has not been able upload any of the plans on the 2020 website, which remains blank. Hopefully the ministry will post these soon. But in an effort to speed things up, I have filmed most of the presentations and uploaded them below. Hopefully this will allow people to have a detailed discussion about what has been presented and help make sure it actually happens this time. I have also made a playlist where you can watch them all consecutively.
How I got these videos online over the course of 24 hours by finding the few locations across Beirut where the internet actually works, is another story I will have to retell later. I am still uploading the last 3 videos, including the mobile/4g section and should have those online in the next few days.
Once again, hopefully the ministry will provide all of the slides and videos. And hopefully they will really go through with this plan, unlike all the other previous administrations. But it should not be a process behind closed doors but one in which all citizens have access to, have a stake in and can help push forward.
UPDATE: I finally traveled to a different country and was able to upload the remaining two videos about how the mobile sector is supposed to look in 2020:
UPDATE 2 3/4/16: It has been over nine months since I published this post. Nine months since “Lebanon2020” was launched and the “Lebanon2020” website is still blank:
This makes me happy that I uploaded all the videos so that people can at least have some reference of the promises made to hold those who made them accountable. On the other hand, I worry if the ministry cannot manage to launch a website, is it really capable of building a country-wide, state of the art fiber optic network?
According to many users, the internet is still pretty horrid today, with speeds that are barely registrable on speed tests.