BEIRUT // Lebanese have reacted furiously to plans to ban Skype and similar internet voice communication systems in a country where mobile phone calls are among the most expensive in the world. The parliament will vote on legislation some time this week that will make voice-over internet protocol (VoIP) phone systems illegal. For the business community and those trying to communicate with the millions of Lebanese living in foreign countries, the ban will wipe out what has become an essential form of communication.
"You cannot imagine the number of meetings we have to hold via Skype every day," said an angry Ali Itani, an information technology specialist with a Lebanese non-government organisation. "We meet with donors from around the world and even here in Lebanon [because of the cost of phone calls]. Banning VoIP will push Lebanon back into the Stone Age. We are already struggling but won't know how to carry on at all without Skype."
Lebanon's mobile phone network ranks among the most expensive in the world and the country has the least amount of consumer choice in the Arab world. Faced with mobile phone charges that can be as high as 44 cents (Dh1.6) a minute for domestic calls, consumers found relief through a popular trade in unregulated VoIP phone systems. The technology has allowed Lebanon to stay in reasonable contact with its massive diaspora, estimated at nearly 12 million people, or three times the estimated population of the country itself. The outrage on the street is palpable, in large part because the prime minister, Saad Hariri, owns the national phone network, Ogero, on which the both of the country's mobile operators run.
Sophisticated VoIP boxes that allowed users to connect actual mobile phones started going dead on June 1 after the telecommunications ministry began blocking some services under orders from the newly appointed telecoms minister Charbel Nahhas. But it was not until this week that people realised there was a campaign under way against Skype itself. Now Mr Nahhas faces criticism from all corners of a Lebanese society, including his own political party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which has begun posting photos of the minister emblazoned with the slogan "Together towards the Stone Age" under his visage on FPM bulletin boards.
The reaction from Lebanon's business community, which is heavily weighed towards international trading and tourism, has been in a near panic as companies estimate what it would cost if they had to pay for the world's most expensive phone calls without using the internet, which happens to be the region's slowest. "This is law of a dictatorship and free speech is fading away," said Sharif Kandil, a freelance graphic designer. "Using Skype to contact my clients in the UAE and Saudi Arabia saves me so much money and allows me to properly work alongside them. I'm already struggling to use Skype because our internet connections are so bad, but without it, I'd have to stop working overseas because I couldn't afford the phone bills. And I will starve with only Lebanese clients."
Along with expensive mobile calls, Lebanon suffers from an internet services that rank below such underdeveloped countries as Afghanistan, Yemen or Bangladesh. Despite widespread usage of internet lines, the Lebanese have been forced to make do with one of the slowest internet services in the world. "I lived for five years in the [Democratic Republic of] Congo and despite a genocide that killed about 3 million people, we always had faster internet and better mobile phones than Beirut," said Tareq Iskander, a businessman. "We relied on Skype to communicate with everyone in our family and businesses, but we couldn't videoconference with people in Beirut because the lines were too slow here. In Goma, they were fine. At least until the volcano destroyed everything."