We in Lebanon love to complain about traffic. But when we tire of bemoaning our clogged roads, we often move on to another popular gripe: the poor state of the country’s information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure. Internet speed is slow, mobile data connections come and go as you move, and calls drop with annoying frequency. While both the current and former telecoms ministers have promised jumps in internet download speed, the country’s speed ranking embarrassingly fluctuates near 170 out of 196 countries whose internet speeds are tracked by the Ookla Netindex. That’s better than dead last — as was the case in October 2011 — but still not the lightning speeds that will usher in the billions in economic activity that we were promised. Given the fact that successive telecoms ministers have touted the goal of creating a ‘knowledge economy’, Executive set out to examine the actual state of Lebanon’s ICT infrastructure — to better understand where we are now and what needs to be improved. We did not expect the answer to be so difficult to find.
ICT infrastructure is the property of the Lebanese government
ICT infrastructure — from our national data and telephone backbones to the copper wires that connect the backbone with users’ homes to the base stations sending out mobile phone signals — is the property of the Lebanese government. But because these assets are built and maintained with taxpayer money, they also belong to the people. And the people have a right to know how their money is being spent, what they are purchasing and the status of those investments.
We reached out to Ogero, the state owned enterprise that monopolizes fixed line services, but were denied an interview. Back in June, when Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb called Ogero’s director general and booked a meeting on Executive’s behalf, the director general promptly kicked Executive out of his office. Never to be deterred by such a refusal, Executive spoke with employees of the Ministry of Telecommunications, top market players and even a company that completed north of $50 million in contracting work on an ICT infrastructure project, but received divergent answers to the most basic question: is Lebanon using a fiber optic backbone for data traffic?
It is absurd and unacceptable that such a simple query cannot be answered with a Google search. Even more ridiculous — and indeed worthy of public outcry — is that government officials tasked with developing ICT infrastructure do not themselves appear to know. Executive will keep searching and will not stop our investigation until we have solid, verified answers. In the meantime, we believe the person with answers must be out there. That person has an obligation to the nation to honestly and transparently explain where we are and what is needed for further improvement. Will Mr. or Ms. X please step forward?