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Missed connections

Lebanon promises 21st century internet speed

by Matt Nash

Their approaches have been as different as fresh fallen snow is from the salty splash of the sea. Abdel Moneim Youssef, former head of the Lebanese state-owned telecom provider Ogero, was cold. Elusive, even. He avoided questions by dissecting them and firing queries back at his interviewer. Imad Kreidieh—who replaced Youssef after the latter was removed from office amid corruption allegations he was later cleared of—has taken to Twitter to tout accomplishments more often than Donald Trump.

Blame for abhorrently slow internet download speeds in Lebanon often fell at Youssef’s feet. Ogero controls the country’s fixed-line telephone network, which includes a fiber-optic backbone—now fully operational—and connections between individual users and the internet, which happen at Ogero centrale around the country. Ogero is also a key decision-maker for telecom policy along with the Ministry of Telecommunications (MoT), which owns all of the country’s mobile-phone network infrastructure. (The country’s two networks, branded in the market as Alfa and touch by operators Orascom and Zain, are managed on behalf of the MoT). Among other complaints, Youssef allegedly kept internet connection speeds at the centrale slow. The veiled accusation here is that the beneficiaries of slow internet are illegal providers, who serve an estimated 50 percent of the market. Regardless of the reasons, by the third quarter of 2017, Ogero had resolved bottlenecks at the central offices, and internet speeds were indeed much faster for many users—we are talking jumps of download speed from 2 megabits per second (mbps) to near 30 mbps.

A faster future?

Ogero spent most of 2017 tendering new projects designed to speed up the internet for as many users as possible. Ongoing projects include upgrading switching technologies to maximize efficiency from the existing copper telecom network, installing “cabinets” across the country to bring fiber as close to homes as economically feasible, and installing new wireless connections to bring fast speeds to users in remote areas. At a conference in late 2017, Kreidieh went so far as to promise that Lebanon will soon have the world’s fastest network. (He later took to Twitter to clarify that users will not necessarily have the world’s fastest connections, just that the network would theoretically be capable of providing them).   

Many internet users in Lebanon have a copper wire somewhere between their device and the actual internet. Internet via mobile phone is now entirely wireless and fiber—home connections, however, are another story. Most buildings are internally wired with copper, meaning even ‘heavy users’ such as universities, banks, and military installations, which are today connected to the fiber backbone via fiber most likely have copper carrying connectivity from the on-site fiber landing site to individual users spread across campus, or dispersed among dozens of floors in an office building. Copper can achieve 30 mbps speeds, provided the distance it is serving is only a few meters. As distance increases, however, quality and speed decrease.

Ogero aims to alleviate the distance problem by deploying fiber cabinets. Instead of having copper wires stretch several kilometers between end users and the nearest centrale, the cabinets will stand in between, with one fiber line connecting the cabinet to centrale, and copper connecting users a shorter distance between their home and the cabinet.

Kreidieh insists the work is ongoing, although he did not respond to an interview request for this report. A potential storm on the horizon, however, first appeared on the radar in October 2017 when telecom minister Jamal Jarrah (who also did not reply to an interview request) accused Kreidieh of corruption. Whether the accusations will continue, and whether or not a management crisis could derail ongoing projects is unclear, but if there’s one thing that years of empty promises have no doubt taught Lebanese internet users, it is that the proof will be in the streaming.

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Matt Nash

Matt was Executive's Economics & Policy Editor and Real Estate Editor from May 2014 to November 2017. He began reporting in Lebanon in April 2007, and his coverage focused on oil and gas, public policy and human rights.

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