x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Group pushes for better net access in Lebanon

Poor performance hurts businesses and consumers, advocacy group says as politicians struggle to create a government

A Lebanese stock exchange employee works in Beirut. The country's businesses are hindered by poor internet connectivity.
A Lebanese stock exchange employee works in Beirut. The country's businesses are hindered by poor internet connectivity.

BEIRUT // As Lebanon forms its new government, businesses and other stakeholders are urging the liberalisation of the broadband internet market to create more competition. The result would be faster, cheaper access, according to the Lebanese Broadband Stakeholder Group (LBSG).

"There is an opportunity. Today we feel that we are in a good situation where we will have a new government and there is a consensus in the country. We want broadband to be on the agenda," said Salam Yamout of the LBSG, an employee of Cisco, one of the companies backing the group. She said the LBSG, a coalition of individuals, non-profits and businesses established less than a year ago, is mobilising the media and pushing for its programme.

The LBSG argues that internet in Lebanon is slow and expensive by regional and international standards. It notes that the maximum speed of 1Mb/s available for private use in Lebanon is referred to as broadband, while elsewhere, 100Mb/s is not uncommon. It also says that 1Gb/s should be available for businesses. The SBGL emphasises the cost to the economy and the business community of the lagging internet service in the country. It says that the 1Mb/s maximum is priced at US$199 (Dh731)/month, while in Jordan the same costs $30/month, and in France 100 megabits per second can be had for 100 euros, or about $140.

"In a country like Lebanon, where the resources of the government are limited, it is best to use the market power to its maximum by liberalising the market and opening it to open and fair competition as soon as possible," the LBSG says on its website. It says that previous governments, although not opposed to better internet access, have been very slow to enact reforms and provide more bandwidth. Kamal Shehade, chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority, the government agency that oversees the telecom sector, said he welcomed the involvement of the LBSG.

"This is the first time that civil society and the business sector have established a group to put pressure on the government," he said. Mr Shehade also thinks that the time is right for rapid improvement in the internet sector, but notes that he has faced strong opposition from "the government bureaucracy, vested interests and those who emphasise the fiscal benefits over competition." Khaldoun Farhat, general manager of internet provider Terranet, objects to what he perceives to be an emphasis on bringing in outside investment. "They are sending the wrong messages to the public and the government," Mr Farhat said. He emphasises that the Lebanese service providers are ready to invest in more capacity and even in the very expensive international lines.

"There is demand and we have the resources," he said. business@thenational.ae