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Flipping the switch

Lebanon’s fiber optic internet backbone is largely in place, but remains unused

by Livia Murray

Boosting Lebanon’s internet speeds — as well as its GDP — would be surprisingly simple. The country has a new, multi million dollar fiber optic network that forms a backbone for data traffic. It is laying idle, however, because a few switches needed to pass information have not been flipped.

That is, the fiber optic cables are laid, connecting the central offices (COs) together and with heavy users.  COs operate like traditional telephone switchboards and route content to end users and other COs. The dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) machines — technology that combines several data channels into the same pulse of light — are in the COs, waiting to be used. But the network is off. There is no data traveling through the cables.

“The [network] that was implemented last year isn’t being used at all. It hasn’t been accepted by our services,” affirms Margot Moussy, advisor to Minister of Telecommunications Boutros Harb.

[pullquote]As soon as the new minister came in, El-Horr claims that payments to the company stopped and CET was denied access to the COs to test the equipment[/pullquote]

The unused fiber optic backbone connects almost all of Lebanon’s approximately 350 COs, and it also connects heavy users across the country, such as hospitals, universities, ministries and businesses, according to Dany El-Horr, vice president at civil works company Consolidated Engineering and Trading (CET). The company was commissioned to lay the fiber optic backbone in 2011 by then Minister of Telecommunications Nicolas Sehnaoui, with Alcatel–Lucent as subcontractors who installed the fiber optic cables. The budget for the project was $55 million. However, as soon as the new minister came in, El-Horr claims that payments to the company stopped and CET was denied access to the COs to test the equipment.

Walid Karam, advisor to the current minister, claims that the projects were halted because in some places the “equipment didn’t pass the test” or meet the standards set by the ministry. Neither he nor Moussy were able to say what percent of the project was actually at technical fault, nor did they know when the network would be turned on, though they added that some work was being redone with the intent of eventually turning on the network.

When Executive spoke with CET, El-Horr claimed that “everything that was asked from us to be done, we’ve done it,” adding that “of course it’s a huge project, no one, not one person, can see all of the project.”

 Hung up on copper

But wherever the fault lies, the country is still relying on its older more decrepit infrastructure. Lebanese internet speeds average around 3.4 megabits per second (Mbit/s) according to an Ookla Net Index for household downloads, calculated based on those who ran a speed test over a 30 day period up to February 19, 2015. However, this research method might be biased to the connections of those users tech savvy enough to actually look up their connection speed. Executive tried to download Ookla’s entire source data dating back to January 2008, but the 1.6 GB file would have taken 13 hours. 

[pullquote]“There is a direct correlation between internet speed, growth, productivity, prosperity and competitiveness. Lebanon suffers on all those because of our slow internet” [/pullquote]

No business Executive has asked has cited a connection higher than 22 Mbit/s, which is about as fast as you get on a shared network, according to Richard Azoury, head of business development at Solidere, which benefits from an older fiber optic network stemming from Beirut Central District (BCD) and connecting a limited number of COs. Some international businesses at BCD are able to get higher speeds via a dedicated connection, though as Azoury puts it “you get what you pay for.”

“There is a direct correlation between internet speed, growth, productivity, prosperity and competitiveness. Lebanon suffers on all those because of our slow internet,” he says.

The current infrastructure we have is mostly made out of copper, which was rolled out beginning in the 1990s. The older fiber optic network that makes up a short central loop connecting five COs — including Adlieh, Jdeideh and Tripoli — is currently carrying internet data, despite the fact that it was initially meant to be used for Ogero billing and back office traffic, according to Maroun Chammas, CEO of internet service provider IDM. “It’s doing internet, but it has a lot of limitations. Because it’s not meant to carry internet traffic,” he says, adding “It’s like a [local area network]. It was not a [wide area network]. It was for their internal network.”

Besides the limited capacity of the fiber optic cables linking a few COs, the rest of the network is old, legacy copper. And the copper cables are “not in the best state,” according to ministry advisor Karam.

But even in the best state, fast internet can’t travel very far on copper. Ghassan Hasbani, CEO of ICT managing and consulting firm Graycoats and formerly partner at Booz & Company, explains that limitations start at about 200 meters from the CO. And the farther you get from the CO, the slower the connection gets.

However, turning on the new fiber would allows speeds of up to 100 Mbit/s according to Hasbani. While fiber lines do not yet reach the ‘last mile’ from the COs to the internet user — meaning many at home may not see astronomical results — turning on the network would allow much higher capacity for the heavy users.

 Turning on the fiber optic infrastructure would not solve all of the country’s internet problems. Fast internet remains expensive, as prices per megabit are set by government decrees, which in practice take time to issue. While the numbers circulating on internet speeds are inconsistent, Massachusetts based cloud services provider Akamai pegs the global average connection speed at 4.5 Mbit/s in its State of the Internet 2014 report for Q3. The report cited the UAE’s internet speed at 4.7, with 3.5 percent of the population having speeds above 10 Mbit/s, but 51 percent of its connections over 4 Mbit/s.

In Lebanon, this was a piece of infrastructure that was a considerable investment on the part of the government, yet has so far not generated any gains. Particularly considering Lebanon’s international capacity which, depending on who you ask, falls somewhere between 400 and 600 gigabits per second. Even if these numbers are inflated  Lebanon’s international capacity is by far underutilized. Increasing citizens’ access to broadband has been cited as having a direct impact on the country’s economic performance. In low and middle income countries, a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration has correlated to an additional 1.38 percent in GDP growth, according to the International Telecommunications Union’s research presented in its Impact of Broadband on the Economy 2012 report.

In most economies, government investments in state infrastructure are paired with a strong readiness from the initiators of the project to put the infrastructure to use as soon as it is ready so that its investors, citizens and the overall economy reap the benefits. Particularly when this investment is in technological infrastructure, standard practice is to apply it before it gets outdated. While fiber optic cables made of glass are good for a lifetime provided the coatings remain in good shape, according to the Fiber Optic Association, increasing global bandwidths and the products and services that fit new internet speeds will likely eventually make the resistant fiber optic cable obsolete. Just as not even 20 years ago when 56 Kbit/s would be the deluxe access to internet on dial-up, Google Fiber may yet take over the world, with claims that its speeds are “100 times faster that today’s basic broadband.”

But Lebanon is not most economies. Were the fiber to be turned on, it would deliver internet to many spaces where learning and commercial activity is carried out, hiking up national productivity. “Today there is a fiber [backbone], let’s switch it on and let’s deal with the end user, last mile when we come to it,” says Chammas.

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Livia Murray

Livia covers business, finance and economic policy for Executive.

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Habib battah March 30, 2015 - 4:32 PM

Interesting piece. I think we need more detail on what went wrong when the digging. I heard it was Khatib Alami that was doing the work (but they are not mentioned in the piece) and there were major issues. with their work How did that happen and who is accountable for that? It shouldn’t be left and he said/she said. Are there no official procedures and documents?

Also I have recently reported on my site about the new cabinets that are being installed in Hamra with fiber cables. These will serve CCTV cameras but I was told they also may serve homes and increase internet speeds: http://www.beirutreport.com/2015/03/fiber-on-the-way.html Did the ministry not comment on this project, which is digging up the streets of Ras Beirut right now?

Livia Murray March 31, 2015 - 2:52 PM

Dear Habib,

As we indicated in our coverage, the Ministry of Telecommunication representatives we spoke with confirmed to us that the contractors were CET in partnership with Alcatel-Lucent.

As for the issues regarding the work on the fiber-optic backbone, our editorial policy does not allow us to report from hearsay or unconfirmed rumors and we therefore will pursue this matter as soon as there are official outcomes from the judicial process.

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