Four reasons Lebanon’s internet is so slow

Broadband in Lebanon faces layers of obstacles

|Greg Demarque|

Though Lebanon has a high international capacity coming in through underwater fiber optic cables — to the likes of several hundreds of megabits per second (Mbit/s) — internet speeds at the actual level of the user are overwhelmingly low. In Beirut, they average about 3.2 Mbit/s according to the Ookla Net Index for household downloads, calculated over a 30 day period ending March 18. This is not considered broadband by modern definitions, and pales in comparison to the global average of 22.3 Mbit/s, calculated over the same time frame.

But the problem is manifold: getting broadband internet in the country faces layers of obstacles. Here are four of the main reasons why internet speeds in Lebanon are suffering.

1. The brand new fiber optic network is not on

Lebanon’s newest fiber optic network, by all appearances, is completely switched off. The project was commissioned in 2011 by then Minister of Telecommunications Nicolas Sehnaoui and implemented by local civil works company Consolidated Engineering and Trading (CET) in partnership with international telecommunications company Alcatel–Lucent at a cost of $55 million.

This network connects the bulk of the central offices (COs) in the country as well as heavy users such as businesses, universities, hospitals, mobile operators and the army, with the newest generation of cables. This network, however, has not yet been approved for further development and use by the new administration under Sehnaoui’s successor Boutros Harb — and thus has yet to be switched on. The foggy reason given by advisors to the ministry is that there are mistakes made by contractors that are still in the process of being corrected.

That means we are still relying on older infrastructure to relay data traffic between COs and heavy users, which is mostly made out of copper, save for a small fiber optic loop connecting five COs including Adlieh, Jdeideh and Tripoli. However, according to Maroun Chammas, chair of internet service provider IDM, this network was built to handle Ogero’s billing and back office traffic and was never meant to act as the country’s backbone for internet traffic. The difference in speeds is quite pronounced. Fiber optic internet can go up to 100 Mbit/s, compared to copper, which is 8 Mbit/s at best, according to Ghassan Hasbani, CEO of consulting firm Graycoats, who adds that the limitations of copper become increasingly problematic the farther the user is from the CO.

When Executive spoke with CET in January, the company’s vice president, Dany El-Horr, explained that after the company delivered the project, having dug one million meters of trenches while Alcatel–Lucent laid down 4,000 kilometers of fiber optic cables, remaining work was forced to a halt when Sehnaoui left office and CET was barred from even entering the COs to test the signal strength of the equipment they had installed. “In most of the country, the cables were laid down, tested, accepted and handed over to the consultant. But in some parts, [such as] in the north, after the government [changed], we were banned from accessing the [COs] to finish our work,” he says.

When put to Walid Karam and Margo Moussy, two advisors to the minister of telecommunications, they confirmed that although the fiber optic cable and equipment has been for the most part installed, it has not been turned on — as in, there is no data traversing the cables in the ground linking the COs. Moussy claims that the new fiber optic infrastructure is not in use because it has not yet been accepted by the ministry.

Karam explains that CET made a number of errors laying the fiber in the ground, and the ministry now has to work with the company to fix the problems. He claims that in some cases, these were quite major problems due to technical specifications that weren’t respected, such as the amount of concrete cement above the cables in the ground, and these were being redone completely. Neither Karam nor Moussy, however, could specify exactly how much of the fiber needed work, nor could they determine exactly when the fiber optic network would be turned on.

These blips in some parts of the implementation, however, do not properly explain why the entire fiber optic network is off. In fact, serious questions remain as to why the operational part of the network, which would at least provide high speed internet to many businesses, universities, hospitals and administrations, has not been turned on. Moreover, the kinds of fixes that Karam and Moussy refer to could, by all logical deductions, be finished within a matter of weeks. The fact that we have not seen any results is puzzling at best.

2. The last mile

Even if the fiber optic backbone was switched on, the average internet user would not feel the difference

Switching on the new fiber optic network would make a great difference for some of the institutions that make up the economic backbone of our country. And while it is a crucial step, it is only a first step in giving access to broadband to all Lebanese citizens. While the fiber optic network installed by CET and Alcatel–Lucent connected the COs and heavy users, it does not connect the COs to the final leg of the telecommunication network: the average end user. These connections are still made through much slower copper infrastructure.

So even if the fiber optic backbone was switched on, the average internet user would not feel the difference.

But a plan is on the way, we are told. According to advisors Karam and Moussy, Minister of Telecommunications Boutros Harb is currently devising a plan for an FTTX project (fiber to the premises). But the project is still in the planning phase, as it had not yet been determined whether it would bring fiber to the home, to the building or to the curb. Moussy and Karam added that we should expect an announcement from the minister on this matter “soon.”

On the sidelines of a reception organized by the Ministry of Telecommunications for Open Innovation Week at the end of February, Harb confirmed to Executive that plans for a last mile project would be announced soon. This prospective announcement, however, has been overdue for at least several months now. Last December, Karam tweeted that Harb was to announce a fiber-to-the-curb project before the end of that year. It might not be unreasonable to venture that we might have to wait a little longer for the elusive announcement. Despite Executive’s repeated requests, Harb has failed to grant longer interviews for the past two months.

3. Bottleneck in the E1 lines

 The next reason Lebanon’s internet is so slow is not related to infrastructure — or a lack thereof. Rather, a problem that would linger even if the shiny, state of the art fiber optic network was expanded to home users and was turned on, is an apparent obstruction in the distribution of international capacity to the private sector internet service providers (ISPs).

Lebanon does not lack in international capacity. The country’s three international exchanges in Beirut, Jdeideh and Tripoli are the gateways for international capacity to reach the country, connecting Lebanon to three underwater fiber optic cables. IMEWE cable connects Lebanon to India and various Middle Eastern destinations, as well as to Western Europe. Meanwhile, the Cadmos cable connects Lebanon to Pentaskhinos in Cyprus and the Berytar cable connects Lebanon to Tartous in Syria.

While Executive has not been able to confirm the exact amount of international capacity the country is receiving with either the ministry or Ogero, the state-run fixed line operator and guardian of the country’s telecommunication infrastructure, estimates from consultants and industry leaders peg the capacity at somewhere between 300 and 600 gigabits per second.

But a very small percentage of this is actually passed down to the private sector ISPs. Many internet ISPs have complained of a bottleneck at the level of distribution of international capacity.

Ogero, which also acts as an ISP, is in addition entrusted with leasing access to international capacity through E1 lines on behalf of the government. E1s are the units of capacity — 2.048 Mbit/s each — connecting the client to the CO. Even if there is physical fiber linking the ISP to a CO, the ISP must buy enough E1s to take advantage of faster speeds. While Ogero directly leases internet connections to end users, private sector ISPs buy from Ogero then resell the lines to end users.

Ogero could be leasing a lot more E1 lines than it is. When we spoke to Khaldoun Farhat, CEO of ISP Terranet, he claimed that ISPs are not getting the capacity they are requesting from Ogero. Farhat explained that Ogero wasn’t giving any more E1 lines because they are claiming that ISPs “have the capacity they need.”

 While Executive was unable to get someone from Ogero to speak on the topic, the advisor to the minister of telecommunications, Karam, claims that one of the reasons Ogero is not granting the ISPs E1 lines is because they are reselling them illegally to Alpha, Touch, and illegal ISPs and DSPs. “They claim that they have x number of customers. Admin says this is the capacity that you need. When [they] need more, [they] have to prove that they need more private customers,” he says.

However, Farhat says that Ogero and the ministry are requesting that ISPs give a detailed list of their clients, full contact details, capacity sold and price. He claims that this is something that ISPs refuse to do, since Ogero competes with ISPs and is worried that this is a measure for the state run company to ‘poach’ their clients.

Ogero has, by the most conservative estimates, over 60 percent of the market for internet service provision

While Executive could not verify either claim, the outcome of this debacle has been to solidify Ogero’s position in the market as a competitor with ISPs. The lack of bandwidth has forced the ISPs to buy capacity from the private sector — such as via satellite, according to Farhat. This is more expensive, and makes it harder for the ISPs to compete with the market prices at which Ogero is selling. Ogero has, by the most conservative estimates, over 60 percent of the market for internet service provision.

Moreover, not getting enough E1 lines either prevents the private sector ISPs from expanding their network of customers, or, more likely, forces them to offer slower speeds for each customer as they stretch the maximum amount of people on the same line.

4.  The high prices

Many ISPs will tell you that if a user wants a faster connection, they can get it — provided they are willing to pay for it. Many businesses in the country have slightly faster internet than in homes, though they often complain about the very high amount they pay for it.

The price of internet service is neither an outcome of market competition or of cost to the providers. Rather, the prices are set by the government and are linked to internet speeds, and every time the government wants to lower the price of the internet, they have to issue a decree, according to Mohamed Alem, managing partner at law firm Alem & Associates. That means a service provider cannot actually lower the price of the internet without a change in the tariffs applied to them.

 If internet speeds went up overnight astronomically, then, we would still have to wait for the government to pass a decree to make the faster internet affordable, and in this way Lebanon is still at the mercy of the government. As Graycoats’ Hasbani puts it, “There’s no point having this capacity with an extremely expensive price to access it. No one will access it.”

Livia Murray

Livia covers business, finance and economic policy for Executive.

27 Comments

  1. Michael Oghia said:

    Wonderful article Livia. It’s fitting that you left what I think is the most important reason last. When I lived in Lebanon, the cost and related corruption was the often-cited reason for such poor Internet. I’m not surprised that nothing has changed, unfortunately.

  2. Omar Chatah said:

    I get 70 Mbps over LTE at my house in Beirut routinely. At $150 for 60GB a month that’s quite affordable and super fast.

    • Habib battah said:

      Omar, with all respect, you live in a bubble. The speeds you describe are only available in limited parts of the capital. Even in the suburbs, I just did a speedtest and got 3.5mbps download and 0.1mbps upload, no 4G coverage. Huge parts of the country do not get any coverage or even DSL. Secondly, $150 per month for limited bandwidth is not a good deal anywhere in the world, let alone in Lebanon where the minimum wage is less than $500 per month. You also left out the fact that after 60 GB, which will be eaten up quickly in this day and age, that every additional gig will be charged at an astronomical rate of nearly $100 per gig, which is simply outrageous. Just because you can afford it, doesn’t mean most people can. I’m not sure why you keep defending this malfunctioning system that only benefits a few.

    • joe elyahchouchi said:

      And what good is that speed with a limit of 60 GB? with 70mbps your 60GB would last exactly 2 hours.

      Congratulations, you just bought 2 hours of good internet for 150$.

      • Abraham Abrahamian said:

        lol that’s true.. I was in Armenia for 2 years, I used to have unlimited wifi, 34 Mbps only for 15$… Internet in Lebanon sucks big time

    • Franky said:

      Quit affordable?? You must be working with Ogero! What a ridiculous claim!!

    • M.H said:

      I pay $135 in qatar and get a speed of around 130 M/s and 1000GB per month. And that is expensive!
      Sorry Lebanon is a corrupt down to its bones… you see the corruption in its roads and internet and all its infrastructure.

  3. Cyril said:

    ^Omar Chatah ,70Mps / 60 Gb for $160 is that considered affordable ?if you have an apple tv ,gaming on ps4 , stream and download movies/games , how much would you pay for an unlimited package ?
    I wish they offer a package like tmobile offers in the States , 70$ unlimited LTE , unlimited internal calls , unlimited sms …
    Just make it unlimited LTE and it’s ok
    I am paying more than 300$ on a 4g bundle by alfa and exeed the monthly consumption by double !

    SHAME…

  4. Naim Zard said:

    Internet distribution is a true challenge for ISPs when the government chooses to compete head to head with the private sector. That’s absurd, the government should be an enabler.

  5. Badran said:

    Just move to Dubai if you are in the tech industry. Unfortunately, you’ll still be writing articles about this topic years to come. I’ve been reading them since 2004 (11 years now).

  6. Abdo said:

    Bull shit ministry of telecomunication. I live in France I have unlimited data with 1000 Mégabits/s down and 200 Mégabits up fibre optic with TV included at 27 euros per month = 45 000 LL. Siyesiyeh afshal men hayk mafi. Mish shatrin gheir y7otto 3ossi bil dwalib. Kell waz7ad byejeh bi wa2ef mashrou3 li2ablo bass li2anno mish men siyeseto. W balad bado yemshi.

    • Habib battah said:

      Thats a really good point Abdo. Bassil first announced fiber plans in 2009, and so has every subsequent minister, but what happened? Today DSL in Lebanon is just as slow in terms of global standards as it was 10 years ago. I think what is happening in telecom underscores a bigger issue which is how planning happens in ministries. The average lifespan of a Lebanese minister is about 1 year. Does this cause a rush for short term projects they can claim credit for while in office?

  7. Antony said:

    I would like to move back to Lebanon, but this is one of the many reasons that I hesitate to do so.

    What a shame on the Ministry of Telecommunications and those responsible.

  8. Fadel sobh said:

    Ever since i arrived to Lebanon i havent been able to play one online game decently with my friends all around the world. Either the government decides to take out my electricity or my ISP is providing me with TERRIBLE internet leading to the loss of connection to the host almost every game. Honestly its embarrassing, my friend from Netherlands the other day asked me if “Al Qaeda” was my ISP. Or everytime I live stream over night with a couple friends and have a decent ammount of viewers, then suddenly it shows that i timed out, making me look bad just because my country (Lebanon) cannot provide me with electricity 24/7 or at least a decent internet connection. I hope we get over this issue soon.

    • Eddy Abi Rached said:

      You have just tapped into the major inquiry for gamers in Lebanon. And while most people don’t actually know this, I would like to clarify that Lebanon is very good in the gaming department, as shown by our DOTA 2, CS : GO and League Of Legends very active scenes. Even some of us, are actually competing in the Leaderboards of those games in the regions that we can safely play on (mainly Europe West) of which a professional player for the Lebanese team E-Lab “GH” is in the top 10 players in DOTA 2 on EU West. I once sat down with the man, had a chat, and found out, quite quickly in fact, that the main problem for Lebanese gamers is the high ping. He told me, that when he goes with his all-lebanese team abroad for competitions, he can see himself move and execute faster, and that is all because of the ping, as to while in Lebanon, he expressed that is hard to find nice Gaming Lounges that offer a ping of under a playable 100ms to EU West.
      One thing that gamers will be glad to have in Lebanon, is the ping reduction. Most of us don’t actually care about the speed, electricity blackouts, and even our “ever-so-happening unexplained loss of Internet”. We, as traditional Lebanese folk, have adapted: speed has been a thing of the past, blackouts don’t matter anymore since we route our routers through an uninterrupted power supply, and we have grown accustomed to the Internet being generally glitchy. However, it is quite a funny scene when you join a game with friend abroad and they ask if our ISP is “Al Qaeda”. Quite a common reply nowadays is : ” No! Al Qaeda would have better ping…”

  9. Walter said:

    Even in Romania, the internet speed is much higher than in Lebanon. Nearly all over Europe you can have a speed up to more hundred mb/s. In my house in Austria, I have 250mb/s down and 50mb/s upstream, in my house in Romania a little slower but nearly the same. In Austria UPC offers me beside the unlimited Internet also 140 TV channels and the landline for free. It costs me 55 Euro per month which is about 60 USD, in Romania only the unlimited Internet 12 Euro per month.

  10. A random citizen said:

    Most Lebanese citizens are suffering from this bad and super slow internet. Especially gamers, that no one in this country take into consideration. If I want to get a DLC pack (that is like 7GB), it would last over 3 or 4 days being downloaded. And other than just for gamers, the Internet in Lebanon should be fixed, the responsibles must find a solution.

    • Ahmad said:

      I actually play gta online on a 0.2mbps download with no problems at all.. lol

      • Max said:

        It’s about upload speed. If you test it at a gaming lounge they only have about 1 mbs down, and 15 up

  11. concerned citizen said:

    Maba3rif leh l3alam ba3da bte7ke 3an hal dawle, talama fi Militia bi Lebnen lbalad 7aydal Zbele.
    Also it’s lovely to see someone that still cares about this Country. But the only way this country will achieve something is by a Civil war it’s obvious but no one dares to say it because too much blood is already shed.
    I hate seeing this Country shocking on it’s own shit because no one has the balls to stand up and fight for what you believe in.
    I do live in Lebanon and I hate this hell hole but i’ill always be Lebanese a citizen till the day I die and no one can take that from me.

  12. yussef961 said:

    to the likes of several hundreds of megabits per second (Mbit/s) whhaaat event that is slow at my home 8 have 945 mbit/s

  13. Amir Shami said:

    This is mad. Nearly every other country is probably 50 years more advanced than Lebanon, even though Lebanon was one of the first Arabic countries to get internet. Lebanon has some catching up to do.

  14. Walid Boutros said:

    dont waste your time debating here, if we need so much time to download and read with these crappy Lebanese speeds. The internet in Lebanon is the epitome of greed, thuggery, incompetence, inefficiency, and corruption. It is no different to water, electricity, parliament, presidents, parties. Technical and administrative explanations are all very nice, and thanks for educating us. Until we find something that will make the people rise and fight our corrupt political system, like garbage almost did, you will get nowhere. Boutros Harb or not.

  15. AnonymousDude said:

    Everything would be better if we remained under the french rule…. The govement would actually quite care about the woes its people are suffering from….

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