x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Blogging community in Kuwait leads campaign against internet supply 'price fixing'

Campaigners say the companies that supply the local market with internet services have enraged customers this year by coordinating to raise prices and introduce daily quotas that limit downloading.

KUWAIT CITY // Kuwait's online community has begun a campaign against a price-fixing oligopoly that allegedly has been formed by the country's internet service providers.

The group organising the campaign - Q8 Cap - say the companies that supply the local market with internet services have "enraged" customers this year by coordinating to raise prices and introduce daily quotas that limit downloading.

"The ISPs are stubborn and insist on ripping off consumers," said a spokesman for Q8 Cap, who declined to be named. The group has used support through Twitter and a dedicated website, and spread its message through interviews with the media and a seminar.

In a sign that politicians are increasingly aware of the online community's political influence, three parliamentarians threw their support behind the campaign at the seminar this week.

"The internet in Kuwait has always been expensive and slow in comparison to other countries but [before] it didn't have a quota," the spokesman said. Since June, internet users have had their internet usage capped at about 2.8 gigabytes per day, which is just 13.3 per cent of the data a customer with a connection of 2 megabits per second (Mbps) should be able to download, he said.

When the limit is breached, the connection speed slows to a snail's pace until the following day, internet users say.

"You're always thinking, 'I'm getting to the limit,'" said Yousef Al Rasheed, a Kuwaiti online gamer who runs the 5lejna.net website. "Instead of buying more technology and paying more money, they're taking services from users."

"I play the X-box and if I install one game, I will have a really slow connection for the rest of the day," he said. "When that happens, you just turn off the computer and forget about it."

Earlier this year, Mr Al Rasheed's website ran a survey of internet speeds in the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries. The survey found that Kuwait's maximum available connection speed of 8Mbps is the slowest in the region along with Qatar.

"In Kuwait, the price of an 8Mbps connection is higher than a 100Mbps in Saudi Arabia," Mr al Rasheed said.

Waqar Ahmed Qureshi, a manager at Qualitynet, one of Kuwait's ISPs, said the country is "not necessarily" the most expensive for internet users in the region and he would have to check the website's survey to see if it was "comparing apples to apples".

Mr Qureshi said other countries, such as Bahrain, limit downloading too, and the restrictions are there to "discourage abusers", such as people who download movies to copy and sell them. He said the company studied the problem before applying the cap, and found that it would not affect 95 per cent of customers.

Q8 Cap argues that combating piracy is the responsibility of the chamber of commerce and the ministry of interior, not the ISPs.

When asked if the companies are coordinating to fix prices, Mr Qureshi said: "I can't comment on that. I don't know."

Kuwait does not have a telecommunications regulatory Aauthority, so the ISPs work in a "collaborative effort" with the ministry of communications, Mr Qureshi said. He said he has heard that the ministry has decided to scrap the daily quotas and he is expecting to hear an official announcement soon.

A source at the ministry said the undersecretary recently met with representatives of the ISPs and demanded that the companies lower their prices and remove the cap, but they have yet to respond.

Faisal Al Muslim, an MP, said at the recent seminar to discuss the issue that ministry officials had promised him that prices would be reduced, but nothing has materialised yet.

"The government is complicit in this scam against the consumer and an interpellation request will be submitted," local newspapers reported Mr Al Muslim as saying, suggesting that the minister of communication will be questioned over the issue in parliament if it is not resolved.

The Q8 Cap spokesman said more MPs "are coming out from under the rock" to support the campaign.

"We live in a digital age where everything is online now: games, TV, socialisation, communications, work," he said. "And rather than using the country's wealth to progress, we're digressing to the 1990s.

"Many officials have not caught up with technology and we, the children of the digital age, find it frustrating."

jcalderwood@thenational.ae