Lebanon’s political theater played out another scene last month with a host of government actors trying to elbow their way to center stage, propped up by a supporting cast of journalists and media figures. Entitled “Utterly Missing the Point”, the plot of this tragic comedy pitted these two groups in a mischievous conspiracy against the Lebanese in which they engineered dramatic distractions to obfuscate the true reason for the country’s failing public services. The scene opened with the infamous General Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, Minister of Energy and Water Gebran Bassil, initiating a blistering quarrel in cabinet over how to divvy up $1.2 billion amongst different contractors and authorities in the installation of new power generation — a project that would, when finished in 2015, supply just barely enough electricity to meet what was needed in 2009. The argument was then duly taken up by a chorus of objecting cabinet blocs and members of parliament who, in the end, decided against implementing any effective checks and balances on the expense.
The obfuscation of the spectacle would not have been possible without the generous support of Lebanon’s newsrooms, which proceeded, with passion and dedication, to cover the controversy ad nauseam without ever elucidating the reasons behind the objections to the proposed legislation, or even the content of the initial proposal. In not focusing on the plan or the law, they scuttled any chance of a counter-narrative that may have pressured the government to actually implement the long-awaited basket of solutions to the country’s most basic needs.
Then there were the exhibitions in befuddlement (misleadingly labeled press conferences) of the principal architect, Minister Bassil, at the beginning of the month.
At the first exhibition, the media dutifully fulfilled their part of the bargain, focusing on why Bassil had not attended a meeting of other ministerial virtuosos aimed at putting the finishing touches on the plan earlier in the day, and not on the details themselves — a particularly canny contrivance. For sending their headliner journalists to the first exhibition and, after the bickering had subsided, their lower tier to the next — where the issues of how to actually realize the objectives of the newly finished piece were up for discussion — we should extend applause to Lebanon’s news agencies.
This propensity of the media to focus on the petty infighting and sound bites espoused by Lebanon’s sectarian leaders, as opposed to dissecting legislative deficiencies and potential solutions, arrives from the intersection of habit and our sectarian media landscape. Maintaining their routine throughout, the media furthers the narrative of “Utterly Missing the Point” by attributing utmost importance to Lebanese leaders’ intentionally insidious and vacuous polemics, entrenching in the mind of the public the insurmountability of the status quo.
The media and its partners in both the ruling majority and opposition have inspired journalists to usher in a new era of reporting and construct the closest thing we have to a national narrative. From here on out, we should endeavor to set the framework for a new philosophy, which all Lebanese, regardless of creed or social standing, can adhere to. As we have done recently, we must seek to adhere to the principle of the bare minimum: demanding only that reform allow us to continue our present state of existence, relative to the world at large, without aiming to actually effect any substantive structural reform.
After two post-war decades with the same headlines, and the same figures making headlines, it should be clear that no leader truly seeks structural reform. Then again, who among us really wants to be hamstrung by the laws and institutions propelling the rest of the civilized world? We would have to sacrifice our freedom to litter at will, to drive in the wrong direction, to smoke in public. We may even lose our entitlement to treat with disdain the foreign workers who build and clean our homes and streets because they work for salaries that we would never accept. This is what gives our country a unique charm that outsiders can only marvel at. Indeed, who needs real reform when you can have chaos and liberty that is only checked by the haphazard application of a law that you can get around with a little wasta?
Perhaps we should not express this notion too loudly lest we tip off those who will never understand how sublime our cycle of freewheeling really is under the surface of constant complaints and invective. So (in a lowered voice), if there is any lasting lesson in “Utterly Missing the Point”, let it be that we stop complaining, accept who we are and stick to the bare minimum.
Lebanon’s new electricity law gives little reason to cheer a decrepid sector
Officially charged with powering the nation, Electricité du Liban (EDL) is today perhaps the epitome of Lebanon’s political ineptitude, and one that nearly pulled the plug on the fledgling cabinet last month.
EDL started with promise in the mid-1960s when architect Pierre Neema modeled headquarters in East Beirut’s Mar Mikhael district in a ‘Brazilesque’ architectural style, symbolizing the progressiveness of the sector and the hope that it would host a catalyst of economic growth for decades to come. Today, illusions have dissipated, and the building, with its few working elevators, its dusty façade and its aging workforce, is nothing less than the embodiment of the dilapidated electricity sector in a country where power cuts are the norm and not the exception.
At present, the sector’s output capacity is roughly half of what it needs to meet current peak consumption demand, and by 2016 will be less than a third of what it needs to be. Supply, transmission, distribution and collection will also have to be improved to counteract the 40 percent annual financial losses the electricity sector accumulates, according to the energy ministry. Those are comprised of 15 percent technical losses due to outdated networks and supply lines, 20 percent in non-technical losses attributed to such things as theft of electricity, as well as another 5 percent from the much-politicized issue of unpaid bills that make headlines every time a collector gets a thumping from neighborhood thugs. The magnitude of the problem notwithstanding, the government has done little to nothing in order to develop the sector since the civil war. Instead, it has spent approximately $16 billion on subsidies, maintenance and the construction of a few insufficient power plants. According to Bank Audi, in the past three years alone the government has spent an average of $1.5 billion on covering the deficit of EDL, mostly as a result of a lack of natural gas supplies and high oil prices. EDL cannot adjust its prices — which are set according to an oil price of just $21 — without a cabinet decision. Losses to the economy due to blackouts and related electricity woes are estimated at around $2.5 billion every year, or about 6 percent of gross domestic product. This year alone the government has already paid out almost $684 million from the public purse to EDL, according to figures released by the finance ministry last month.
To add insult to injury, the combination of these factors has resulted in another political debacle that has gripped the nation and delayed the affairs of parliament — all for a stopgap solution to the country’s most precarious public policy predicament.
The general’s plan
In August, Member of Parliament and Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader Michel Aoun submitted a one-page law to Parliament asking the government to budget $1.18 billion for the production, transmission and distribution of 700 megawatts (MW) of electricity capacity to augment the current output capacity of 1500MW, as well as the funding of required consultants, over a period of four years.
The proposal immediately set off political fireworks amongst both the opposition and the parliamentary majority, who decried the proposal as too limited in scope and/or oversight, thus putting it in Lebanon’s overstuffed inbox: the cabinet. But it was when Aoun’s bloc threatened to resign that things became particularly heated and the ‘one color cabinet’ became somewhat kaleidoscopic.
Of course, an additional 700MW is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing Lebanon’s electrical shortfall. Back in 2009, when FPM Minister of Energy Gebran Bassil unveiled his five-year strategy for the sector, Lebanon’s average consumption stood between 2000MW and 2100MW, peaking at somewhere around 2450MW in the summer months. According to the energy ministry, demand growth in 2009 was around 7 percent annually, or 170MW, at peak consumption. Last month, the minister said that demand grows around 200MW to 300MW per year. Do that math and peak consumption today should stand at around 2900MW, meaning the difference between the capacity to be added (700MW) and what is still needed will be roughly same. Factor in another four years before production comes online and it becomes a small drop in the bucket. “It’s not about the [additional] 700MW; it’s about the 5000MW [projected to be needed after 2015],” says Albert Khoury, deputy general manager of the Electrical Utility of Aley, a concession that distributes electricity to the district of Aley. According to Cesar Abu Khalil, advisor to the Minister of Energy and Water, the reason this plan was proposed was because it could be the most easily implemented. It was the only one ready to go to tender, as the pre-qualification standards and conditions had already been completed, and the $1.8 billion budget had already been agreed upon by the previous cabinet and included as part of the draft budget for 2011, even before the five-year strategy was passed.
Although not mentioned in the proposed legislation — something opposition MPs were quick to note — Abou Khalil explained that the project is in line with the original five-year strategy approved in 2010. According to the energy ministry, the total budget for the project came to $850.4 million for installing Combined Cycle Gas Turbines (CCGT), $247 million for the transportation of power, $38.5 million for distribution and $40 million for consulting. Abou Khalil also stated that these figures are “estimates,” and do not necessarily reflect the money that will actually be spent because tenders have not yet occurred. “The accurate numbers will be released and everybody will know [them] when the tenders are done and the contracts won.” Contrary to what had been reported in the Lebanese press, another power plant in a new location will not actually be built, says Abou Khalil. The additional 700 MW will come from an additional CCGT “set”, the term in the power industry for a subunit of a CCGT power plant, at the Deir Ammar power station, generating between 400MW and 450MW and reciprocating engines in Jiyeh and Zouk. The project will also include the rehabilitation and the addition of power units in Zouk, Jiyeh and Deir Ammar to get to the final 700MW.
Deal or bust
While those 700MW may be able to at least account for some of the shortfall, the political fiasco over the project can be seen as a sign of things to come on the road to 24-hour power, which will not be reached for another four or five years even if everything goes as planned.
All other cabinet items were delayed and sessions put off due to the ruckus between Aoun’s 10-member bloc, which insisted the measure be passed as it is, and MP and chairman of the Progressive Socialist Party Walid Jumblatt’s bloc. This prompted mediation efforts from Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s ministers, as well as others from the Amal Movement and Hezbollah.
The reasons for opposition to the matter were unclear but revolved around funding the plan from the treasury rather than from international donors offering lower interest rates. It was eventually agreed that this issue would be discussed at a later stage and the debate then turned to the amendment of the existing electricity law, oversight from the cabinet and the creation of the legally mandated regulator, the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA).
As the gloves came off, the divisions in cabinet were clear, with reports of the prime minister slamming the table and screaming at the energy minister, levying counter threats that he too would leave the cabinet for good if there was no settlement. “You taught us to sit on the table and say ‘either you give us what we want, or we go.’ Now, I am using the same thing with you, Gebran: Either you go for the proposal, or I go,” Mikati was reported to have said, according to An Nahar newspaper. Obviously he did not go, and a compromise was reached. When the premier emerged from the secret session he announced that the law had been approved, with amendments. One change was to the allocation of money, which it was determined would be spent over four years — $247 million in 2011, $305 million in 2012, $277 million in 2013 and $252 million in 2014. The prime minister also announced an agreement over a regulatory authority to supervise the sector within three months and the appointment of a new board of directors of EDL within two months.
Regulation or removal of authority
But it was not all celebrations and champagne bottles for the energy minister and his party, as the hangover is sure to come. In theory, there is a law that was passed in 2002 that sets out how the sector ought to be restructured and regulated. Law 462, or the electricity law, is meant to replace the existing legal structure that grants EDL a monopoly over production, transmission and distribution of electricity. The law proposes that the sector be unbundled — separated into generation, transmission and distribution functions — and possibly partially privatized so that the private sector would be allowed to generate and distribute electricity to then sell to the government.
Overseeing all of this would be the ERA, which would set standards, give out licenses for production and distribution and set price ceilings and perform tenders. At least that was the rosy picture.
The reality is that since then there has not been one minister or cabinet that sought to introduce the regulator to the sector, as was supposed to happen. Nor were the implementation decrees issued, which should have taken place three months after the law was published in the Official Gazette almost a decade ago.
“We started drafting it in 1996 and it came out in 2002,” says Roudi Baroudi, an independent energy consultant and secretary general of the World Energy Council’s (WEC) Lebanon Member Committee, who worked on drafting the original law. “We should have had an electricity regulator since 2002. The implementation decrees were ready, the [cabinet] appointments were ready.”
While it may be global best practice, the issue of a sector regulator flares tempers amongst politicians. After Lebanon’s Taef agreement, which ended the civil war, most executive powers were transferred to the individual ministers under Article 66, effectively giving them a legal basis to choose to implement or not implement laws.
In his previous post as telecommunications minister, Bassil was involved in a bureaucratic dogfight with the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority over the jurisdictions of each of their mandates. The issue ended up in Lebanon’s supreme court on several occasions. Eventually, the ministry won out and today the TRA is little more than an advisory body to the ministry and practices very few of its legal functions.
The apparent root of the problem in both the telecom and electricity laws is the way they were written, granting the minister the right to set the ‘general policy’ of the sector.
“The difficulty that we have faced in the Lebanese public administration has been: What is general policy?” says Ziad Hayek, secretary general of the Higher Council for Privatization. Abou Khalil adds that there is no specific political ideology held by the minister opposing the formation of the regulator (which PM Mikati announced should be established three months after an agreement on the 700MW law was reached, per the proposal of Bassil) but “under the present constitution, the minister is the head of his ministry and we cannot create any other body that can shackle him or prevent him from exercising his prerogatives.” Khalil called the time limit for establishing a regulator, “not a deadline [but] an encouragement”.
Mohamad Alem, managing partner of Alem & Associates law firm, who specializes in public sector dispute resolution, said that if, after a period of three months, the minister does not propose the names of those persons who would head the ERA, the premier basically has two options: he either assigns the power to appoint the board of the ERA to the cabinet or removes the minister. Either option would be cataclysmic for the cabinet. Minister Bassil is one of the foremost, if not the foremost, minister of the FPM and the bloc controls a third of the cabinet; thus, the loss of one more minister would bring the whole apparatus crumbling down once again. The press office of the Council of Ministers could not be reached for further clarification.
Amending the law
Generally, there is an agreement amongst most political circles that Law 462 will need to be amended. One of the agreements made at the September 7 cabinet session was that a committee comprised of PM Mikati, as well as the ministers of finance, health, justice, public works and transport, social affairs, energy and economy and trade would look at the introduction of amendments to Law 462.
According to Hayek there are two major areas where amendments are needed: one is the ERA, the second is the corporatization of EDL. When asked by Executive what the amendments he sought to impose were, Minister Bassil refused to comment in detail, saying only that the proposals were related to distribution, production, the ERA and alternative energy. Abou Khalil also declined to comment but did say that the discussions would begin with the proposed amendments already sent to the previous cabinet by Bassil.
With the issue of the 700MW law out of the cabinet, it is now in the hands of a much less amicable body. As Executive went to print, the bill was making its rounds at the joint parliamentary committees before hitting the general assembly. In the first session there was a heated debate between opposition MPs headed by former Premier Fouad Siniora, who reportedly gave a presentation outlining the opposition’s position (namely that there is no mention of international concessionary loans in the law and no mention of the ERA) and then left the room without hearing Bassil’s response.
Already, the ministry’s arch-nemesis, opposition MP Mohammed Kabbani, is threatening further action against the ministry. Kabbani told Executive that if the ERA is not appointed within three months he will demand a vote of no confidence against the energy minister in parliament.
Distributing a problem
Asked whether he would block the cabinet’s electricity bill in parliament, MP Mohammed Kabbani insisted that, if it reached parliament in the form agreed by the cabinet, he would not. However, he is not particularly happy with the overall five-year strategy, which he would seek to “improve and protect”, as its initiatives make their way through the budget process necessitating parliamentary approval.
Part of the five-year strategy is to restructure how electricity is distributed throughout the country. The Distribution Service Provider (DSP) project, carried out under the auspices of EDL, will split Lebanon into three areas where electricity distribution, maintenance and collection operations will be allocated to three contract winners over a four-year period. The DSP is a turnkey project where planning, design, asset management, construction of distribution facilities, meter reading, bill collection and project management are integrated, according to the energy ministry. The project is budgeted in the five-year plan at an estimated $361 million and scheduled to take place between 2011 and 2014, with an additional $50 million budgeted for the upgrade and rehabilitation of the system in 2015.
The tender for the project, which was not announced by the ministry’s media office and only mentioned in passing by the minister last month, has already been completed amongst seven principal bidders: the Arabian Construction Company (ACC), ACE, Batco, Butec, Caporal & Moretti, Debbas and Mercury. Each company has entered into a joint venture with a local partner, such as Khatib & Alami and ACC, as well as E-Aley and Batco.
According to Kabbani, however, the project is “definitely illegal… was it done in a way that allows for oversight? It was a tabkha,” or a cooked up deal.
According to Kabbani, the project involves public funds that will be spent without approval from the parliament, in contravention to the public accounting law, while there is nothing in the contracts that assures the government’s revenue will be protected.
He says because the companies are contractually obligated to install, manage and collect payments from consumers, but do not actually get paid a fee directly from the government, they will have to borrow the money from banks to fund their operations. However, to make back their investments Kabbani says that they will take a percentage of the money they collect from consumers, which should go to the government. That percentage is not yet approved by parliament and forms the crux of his objection. Kabbani, however, admitted that he had not seen the tender.
“There are already contractors for collection at EDL. I have always witnessed MP Kabbani emitting his opinion according to his political stance, not technical stance,” says Cesar Abu Khalil, advisor to the Minister of Energy and Water. “I reiterate for him to read the tender books, and the project, before emitting political opinions on a technical matter.”
According to the energy ministry, payment to service providers will be made up of a direct, set payment from EDL’s budget, and another sum determined by the amount of money saved by allowing the DSP to perform functions, such as installation of meters and collection of bills that EDL would normally do or contract out. “Each component [is] based on unit prices adjusted by key performance indicators which were well-defined during the bidding process and able to be accurately calculated during the implementation process,” the ministry says. The five-year strategy also reiterates this point, stating “the recovery of capital and cost of financing will be paid from improved collection.”
“Our remuneration is dependent on how well we perform or on how badly we perform, [with] huge penalties [if] we do not,” says Albert Khoury, deputy general manager of the Electrical Utility of Aley, a concession that distributes electricity to the district of Aley and who is the local partner on the Butco bid. “We need to have results.” In any case, the final call on the legality of the matter will be decided both by the Minister of Finance and the Audit Court before the contracts can be awarded.
No end in sight
What all this means for the consumer is that they should not expect to be relieved of paying for electricity once to the government, twice to private generators, third in the form of a subsidy and fourth, whenever power surges destroy appliances. The political morass that has obstructed the implementation of any electrical progress for decades has not been cleared. Even if the current project is implemented, there will be no impact for four years; all the while the country’s aging infrastructure continues to deteriorate. In short, “there is no conspiracy,” says Khoury. “There is just rotten politics.”
The long awaited introduction of high speed internet and 3G is upon us, insha’allah
Recent history would show that perhaps the only thing slower than Lebanon’s Internet speed is the process the politicians have undertaken to bring about faster Internet speeds. But just as web pages do, eventually, load onto laptop screens in Beirut, it may be that Lebanon’s online evolution from the Stone Age to the modern day will not take another millennia.
Former Minister of Telecommunications Charbel Nahas promised as much when he announced on January 28 of this year that third generation Internet services (3G) “will be available to the Lebanese in all areas within seven months” — alas, such was not to pass, though the country’s telecommunications sector has not been entirely devoid of new life.
The light at the end of the tunnel
3G technology is a means of incorporating high speed Internet with mobile devices such as “smart phones,” but subscribers will also be able to attach a simple device called a “dongle” to their computers and use the service the same way they currently use other wireless Internet products on the market such as the pervasive Mobi and Wise Box. The speed promised by Nahas, who is now the country’s labor minister, was to average 7 megabits per second (mbps) and reach speeds “up to” 21 mbps. That would be a speed 27 times faster than those currently available via a digital subscriber line (DSL) (the current fastest possible Internet connection in the country), 70 times faster than those available using the general packet radio service (GPRS) and 500 times faster than those available to ordinary cell phone subscribers, according to Nahas.
Of course, the August 28 kick-off date has come and gone, but work on the 3G network has been underway, and by September 20 the first round of testing was launched by two state-owned Mobile Interim Companies — MIC1 and MIC2 — managed by Alfa and MTC Touch, respectively.
New prices, same story
Another promise put forth was from the current Telecommunications Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui for a new list of speeds, prices and download/upload caps. Under his plan, speeds would increase between four and eight times their present snail’s pace. Such a measure requires approval from the cabinet, which was confirmed in the official gazette on September 15.
The decree details the new pricing and capacity structures for consumers and data service providers (DSPs) looking to increase their services, and was due to come into effect on October 1.
The reason such an advance in conventional and 3G Internet use has become possible at this point is because an undersea Internet cable dubbed the India-Middle East-Western Europe 3 (IMEWE3) has finally been opened up, after having originally been scheduled to go online in March 2010.
The IMEWE3 cable has a total capacity, for the many countries connected, of 3.84 terabytes per second. Lebanon’s allocation is 120 gigabits per second (gbps), with the potential to be upgraded to some 300 gbps, a game changer for Lebanon, whose legal bandwidth transmitted over the Cadmos cable was around 2 gbps before the IMEWE3 opened up. The problem with the cable was, perhaps predictably, political in nature.
As Executive reported in July, Abdulmenaim Youssef, the head of Lebanon’s fixed line operator, Ogero, refused to hand over the administration of the cable to Minister Nahas. Coincidentally, Youssef also occupies the post in the ministry that is supposed to oversee Ogero. Youssef, who in the past was close to the current opposition and is now believed by many to be supported by the Premier Najib Mikati, is in charge of doling out the needed international capacity to companies like service providers MIC1, MIC2, the DSPs and the Internet service providers (ISPs). This is done by distributing E1s, or bandwidth packages equal to 2 mbps, to those who request them.
The government recently decreased the price of an E1 from $2,700 to $420, ostensibly to facilitate the expected consumption increase. As Executive went to print, 10 gbps of extra capacity had already been opened up through the IMEWE3 cable, according to Firas Abi-Nassif, advisor to the telecommunications ministry.
According to Habib Torbey, head of the Lebanese Telecom Association (LTA), president of GlobalCom Data Services and owner of Internet provider IDM, “The 10 gbps is needed for the initial phase [of the fixed Internet upgrade], but directly afterwards there should be 20 gbps ready [for use].” He added that the government has promised to increase the bandwidth to 100 gbps by the end of the year.
“We have signed all requests for E1s from private sector companies,” said Abi Nasif, when asked if the providers had received their requested capacity. “Once the minister signs, the execution is in the hands of Ogero. If this does not take place, kul hadis illu hadis,” an Arabic expression that roughly translates as a veiled threat that there will be consequences. Youssef did not respond to Executive’s request for comment. But at press time, several ISPs had confirmed that they still had not received their requested E1 lines.
Torbey also stated that the minister’s office had informed him that private DSPs will be allowed access to more of Ogero’s central offices (COs), distribution centers in each neighborhood that are needed to dole out DSL to customers. In 2006, when DSL Internet was being introduced to the market, the telecommunications ministry signed a memorandum of understanding with private sector players stating that the government intended to compete with them on a level playing field. Ogero, under Youssef, opened up the initial 35 COs to the private sector but later rescinded that privilege and eventually blocked them from entering any of the 171 total COs that were created. Ogero capitalized on their market position and scooped up the lion’s share of potential customers around the country, leaving the private sector unable to compete.
If progress is not achieved in the current environment, the minister could technically ask the cabinet to remove Youssef from one or both of his posts. The fact that he is both head of Ogero and head of Ogero oversight, as far as the telecommunications minister’s party leader Michel Aoun is concerned, is already illegal. With a cabinet that, at least until recently, was described as ‘one color’, putting pressure on Youssef may be much more feasible than at any time since Youssef was held in jail for several months on charges of wasting public funds and illegally using official telephone lines in 2004, though he was eventually cleared and released.
Aoun has already hinted that Prime Minister Najib Mikati is protecting government officials who are violating regulations. Aoun and Mikati recently came to loggerheads over the electricity file currently before cabinet [see story page 108], and there has been speculation that if Youssef does not implement the planned expansion of the network, then Aoun’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement, will lobby the cabinet to have Youssef removed.
Even if everything goes according to plan, come October 1 there are other potential roadblocks in the way of an efficient telecommunications network. According to studies carried out by private sector operator Cedarcom, the majority of subscribers will choose either plan two (1 mbps with a 10 GB cap) or plan three (2 mbps with a 20 GB cap). But even if the bandwidth becomes available, there are doubts about Lebanon’s infrastructure.
“The situation of our ground networks is very catastrophic,” said Riad Bahsoun, an expert at the International Telecommunications Union, the United Nations agency for information and communications technology. “In its present state the [local] network cannot cope with any expansion.”
The government currently does not have a standard and functional quality of service system to monitor if breaks and outages are occurring on a regular basis and where. While a new fiber optic network is being built around the country — and will take at least another year to become functional — the present outdated network relies on a mix of fiber, coaxial cables (made for voice, not data) and old copper wires.
Indeed, last year saw several outages that cut off entire swathes of the country from the Internet access for days. “There will be more and more cases where people ask for the 6 mbps and they cannot get it,” said Imad Tarabay, chief executive of Cedarcom, which distributes the Mobi wireless service, and secretary general of the LTA, which represents the country’s private sector Internet providers.
Even so, Abi-Nassif, who specializes in Internet traffic engineering, said the network will be “fine”, although he admitted “things will not be 100 percent smooth on October 1.”
Bahsoun, however, called the much-publicized plans to upgrade an effet d’annonce, a French term for an announcement made for effect whose veracity is in doubt.
“The media was sold the issue of the Internet [upgrade] under Sehnaoui but all he did was apply the things that have been around since [former telecom minister] Gebran Bassil,” he said. “But it is good that he went forward and did it.”
Private sector exclusion
So with faster and cheaper fixed Internet a possibility this October, or some time thereafter, the option of mobile Internet is still on the table. The ministry has not yet set pricing for the service, but according to Abi-Nassif it will be announced on October 20 when the minister will unveil the coverage areas, details and dates. He said that the process of covering the country would take roughly a year and the rollout would be gradual.
As Executive reported last March, Cedarcom was planning to bring forward a lawsuit against the telecom ministry at the Shura Council, Lebanon’s highest court, seeking to halt the 3G project, not because they are against it in principle, said Tarabay, but because it would effectively neutralize the private sector and nationalize the telecommunications industry. That lawsuit has since been submitted and is being considered by the Shura Council.
The thrust of the allegation is that MIC1 and MIC2 have been granted neither the licenses nor the frequencies required to legally provide 3G service — yet they are proceeding with plans to do so anyway — while private sector players are being disallowed from entering the 3G market because they do not have licenses to do so. The initiation of a wholly public sector 3G service would almost immediately price the private sector out of the market because of the large fiscal imbalance between the two in terms of taxation and operating costs.
Tarabay said that as part of the legal proceedings both Cedarcom and the ministry were asked to present their operating licenses to Shura Council. Accordingly, Cedarcom did so, while the ministry did not present the licenses of Alfa and MTC within the timeframe allotted. A copy of the Shura Council decision obtained by Executive indeed declared that the decision to launch 3G by the ministry was not in line with legal standards for a number of reasons: that the decision was taken during a caretaker government, that it is the job of the TRA and the cabinet to issue the licenses, and even that the decision contradicts the principles of fair competition. The decree furthered that the 3G projects should be halted for a period of a month and the ministry given 15 days — starting September 15 — to renege on its decision to proceed.
When Executive asked Abi-Nassif to confirm this information he said he was not aware of the issue but would transfer this and all other legal questions to the person in charge. Several days later, he called back to say that the ministry would “rather not” comment on legal issues at the time.
Despite the Shura Council ruling the minister has claimed on his Facebook page that he will proceed with the plans, because, “no one can stand in the way of change and reform [and] the minister will show the weakness of those trying to slow down this project”.
As such, when it becomes time for the cabinet to price the service for the public, it may technically be pricing a service that is illegal.
Compromise or cop out?
There may be a compromise solution to the public-versus-private sector dispute over 3G, however. According to Abi-Nassif, ISPs could serve as mobile virtual network operators (MVNO), an industry term for a company in agreement with the owners of a telecom asset that performs services ranging from complete resale with separate branding to merely offering a back office service such as billing. Abi-Nassif confirmed that this was the ministry’s “orientation” at the moment but did not confirm that this was the final policy.
The LTA’s Torbey confirmed that he was in talks with the ministry on this very subject. “If the government gives me an MVNO that would be enough for me,” he said. But he will not accept to be “just a reseller,” seeking instead to be a “real added value service provider.”
“At the end of the day we started Internet in this country, we know more than anyone what our customers want. Why would they put restrictions on us and say ‘you can install this but not that?’ It’s not right,” said Torbey. “We shall see what we will do if they don’t let us [install what we want]. That’s why there are negotiations.”
Even if an MVNO is agreed upon it would not necessarily solve the problem. If 3G is launched in its full capacity before the MVNO, then the same thing that happened with DSL — public sector control of market share — could happen again, leaving the private sector out to dry.
“We are pressuring the ministry so that we start at the same time as Alfa and MTC. Otherwise there will be a conflict,” Torbey said. “There are people on the other side who are pushing in the opposite direction, saying ‘why should you give the ISPs the right to sell on 3G? We as MTC and Alfa want to sell on our own.’ There is a conflict of interest for sure,” he concluded, while saying that he will accept no less than to be allowed to have an MVNO that gives them “everything but infrastructure.”