Lebanon is far from a bastion of fast and cheap internet. But stacked next to bumpy disorganized highways, intermittent electricity and a recent proliferation of private water companies that distribute water of questionable quality when the state runs out, internet infrastructure is probably the best infrastructure that the country has aside from air and seaports.
This is very bad news, considering it is more an indication of poor infrastructure than the relatively positive state of the internet. Internet speeds are still very slow compared to other countries. Download speeds averaged 3.3 Mbit/s, according to Ookla Net Index calculated over a period of 30 days ending March 24. This compares to a global average of 22.6 Mbit/s calculated over the same period.
If you think that such slow internet has a marginal impact, think again. Sluggish speeds not only hinder streaming YouTube videos; they drag down the growth of the entire economy. And conversely, a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration has correlated to an additional 1.38 percent in GDP growth in low and middle income countries, according to the International Telecommunications Union. To spark growth, fire up your internet. Frustratingly, the country’s internet could be sped up almost immediately by activating the brand new fiber optic backbone to carry traffic from local central offices to international exchanges. Other obstacles to fast internet, however, will likely take longer to overcome. These include upgrading the ‘last mile’ capacity from the country’s internet backbone to homes and businesses, licensing more capacity to internet service providers and bringing down the steep prices for a decent connection (see “Four reasons Lebanon’s internet is so slow“).
While infrastructure upgrades to the ‘last mile’ are a matter of investment and time, licensing capacity and lowering prices are purely political and administrative tasks. The fact that they are unlikely to happen anytime soon is a categorical indictment of government leadership on the issue. The person with the biggest stake in this leadership is Abdel Moneim Youssef, simultaneously the head of state owned telecom company Ogero and the director general of operations and maintenance at the Ministry of Telecommunications. Youssef has not only failed to improve the country’s ICT sector, he is stridently — and ridiculously — unapologetic (see “Master muddler“). He must be replaced by competent and hard working individuals.
Youssef’s departure will not, however, be enough. The post of telecommunications minister has long been warped into that of a mini-finance minister by perverse fiscal arrangements. Finance ministry estimates for January–November 2014 peg telecom revenues as making up the majority of the state’s nontax revenue (where customs revenues are counted under tax revenues) at $1.2 billion. As such, anyone overseeing the sector sits on a certain amount of power — certainly much more than those heading any other non ‘sovereign’ ministry.
This corruption of the function of the telecoms minister has stymied real reforms in the sector since at least 2003 when then-Minister of Telecommunications Issam Naaman warned that privatization of the sector would lead to a serious loss in annual revenues. Only when political chieftains stop fighting over the telecoms post and agree to undo the current distortion of the office will Lebanon have a chance at true competitiveness in communications and all the sectors that rely on it.
This, however, will take comprehensive detente and agreement among Lebanon’s parasitic politicians. So start by firing up the internet backbone. Then fire Youssef.