Take a 10 hour flight east from Lebanon and you will findyourself in the most Internet-enabled country in the world: South Korea. Thecountry has been labeled as the most connected in the world for years now, withan average connection speed of 39 Megabits per second (with that speed, you candownload a 10 Megabyte YouTube video in less than 2 seconds). Lebanon lies atthe other end of the spectrum, ranked last among 186 countries, with an averageconnection speed of 450 kilobits per second.
In comparing the Korean success story to that of Lebanon’sown failed telecommunications network, it is easy to get an idea of why theLebanese hardly progress economically and instead reminisce over pastachievements. We have heard them all before: Arabs invented the “0” andalgebra, and the Lebanese were the first to introduce GSM — the world’s mostwidely used mobile phone network — in the Middle East. Yet today they suffer from the lousiest, slowest andmost expensive Internet services in the world. The question is: what happenedin between?
The Koreans succeeded on three fronts: policy, demand andsupply. Pre-2007, Korea had conflicts in policy and regulation because theMinistry of Information and Communications, the Korea CommunicationsCommission, the Korea Broadcasting Commission and the Fair Trading Commissionregulated the industry. They realized that four separate regulating entitiescould not agree on common goals, so they consolidated into two entities: theKorea Broadcasting and Communications Commission, which independently regulatesthe communications industry, and oversees television, radio, telecommunicationsand Internet services, and the Fair Trading Commission, which regulatesindustry-wide competition. This created a “regulator” for telecoms and a“protector of fair competition” throughout the industry.
The results were palpable: a telecommunications policyliberalizing entry and competition was initiated, 10,400 schools were connectedto the Internet and there was a convergence of services between voice and data,enabling video phones, video conferencing, ‘Video on Demand’, voice over IP(VoIP), Mobile VoIP, fixed-to-mobile convergence and so on and so forth.
This only happened because the quality of service policieswas enforced, which introduced various broadband access technologies andubiquitous service coverage. They permitted competition at all levels, gavesecurity for investment in their infrastructure through fair competition andgave access to students to fast Internet in their schools and universities.
How not to do it
When we take the flight back to Lebanon we understand why wehave the slowest Internet in the world. To make a long story short: In 2002there was a vision to reform telecommunications in Lebanon. Parliament passedTelecom Law 431, which transferred the regulatory role from the Ministry ofTelecom (MoT) to the “independent” Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA). In 2007the TRA was established with the mission of licensing, regulating and ensuringfair competition in the market. The TRA granted licenses for frequencyallocations to Alfa, MTC, Ogero, the Lebanese Army, Electricité du Liban andprivate data operators. But four years later they haven’t managed to issue asingle long-term license to any operator and as a consequence have failed tobring any investments to the sector. They also remain financially dependent onthe Ministry of Telecom (MoT).
Comparative monthly costs to provide a subscriber connection in Lebanon
The power struggle is naturally tilted in the favor of thefinancier, the MoT, which slapped the TRA around last year and kept itsemployees unpaid for four consecutive months.
The MoT keeps its hands on permits of equipment imports,sells Internet capacity in partnership with the state-owned and operated Ogeroand taxes private operators 10,000 percent: the ministry, through Ogero, buys a2 Mbps line for less than $30 and sells it to Internet service providers (ISP)for $3,000. Through this and other unfair practices Ogero has gained control of80 percent of the digital subscriber line (DSL) market, and kept privateoperators paying direct and indirect taxes of up to 60 percent while they aresubject to yearly short-term licenses.
Private sector data operators and Internet providers facethe threat of closure due to unfair competition from “unlicensed” 3G servicesprovided by Alfa and MTC. Let’s not look at the legality of their operation andtheir dubious adherence to the Telecom Law, but instead focus on unfaircompetition and its drastic effects on the industry and the consumer.
Alfa and MTC already have GSM networks, and the overlay ofnew 3G networks will have limited incremental operational cost, because thecosts associated with antenna site rentals and human resources are alreadycovered for by the GSM services. In Law 431, and following international bestpractice, operators are prohibited from cross-subsidizing the cost of a servicewith the earnings from another one.
Alfa and MTC are privileged to subsidize the human resourcecost, antenna rental space and electricity cost (already they pay rental costfor the GSM sites) and to pay for bandwidth at the same cost that the Ministrybuys these lines for. In comparison with private operators, Alfa and MTC aresaved from paying the equivalent of $12 per subscription of license fees orlicense taxes, while ISPs pay 100 times the bandwidth cost and have to pay fortheir staff.
Each private Data Operator and ISP subscriber pays around$12, or 27 percent, in taxes on a $45 Internet connection every month. All dataoperators combined pay around $5.2 million in taxes annually.
It would be better for everyone were the government to levelthe taxation in line with Alfa and MTC. That tax reduction would be passedthrough to the consumer, and they would be able to get an account for $33 permonth.
The popular yet dangerous sentiment that private operatorsface the threat of closure due to unfair competition is not exactly correct;the taxation imbalance, which amounts to roughly $16 per account per month, andwhat it brings as a cost advantage to Alfa and MTC, not competition per se, iswhat is impeding the free telecom market. In other words, Alfa and MTC can sellthe same Internet account speed and quality at around $16 dollars less. Theresult of such an environment could be the closure of private operators.
If the telecom sector is “nationalized” due to unfair competition,it is the consumer who loses most, as there is nothing to prevent monopolyoperators from raising prices or offering low quality services.
A problem of policy
In 2008, the Minister of Telecoms had a clear vision ofupdating Lebanon’s telecommunications.After consulting with more than 150 telecommunications executives for over fourmonths, in May 2009 Minister Gebran Bassil published a clear policy paper thatadvocated for fair competition and called for investments in the sector. Alloperators applauded this policy and called for its immediate implementation.Strangely, caretaker Minister of Telecommunications Charbel Nahas scrapped it,leaving the country with highly-taxed Internet services, unfair competition andmonopolistic tendencies.
Going back to the Korean example, a simple comparison showswhat a liberal telecommunications policy and solid infrastructure leads to;Koreans can buy a 100 megabit home connection for as little as $30 per month.The same connection in Lebanon, were it available, would cost at current ratesroughly $150,000.
The Lebanese have the will and the knowledge for greatprogress in the telecommunications sector. The government must provide theincentives for investment and innovation and protection from unfair competition.In South Korea, the change started with policy and in Lebanon it will have toas well.
IMAD TARABAY is the chairman and CEO of Cedarcom