Trapped in inertia

Lebanese telecoms remain in tatters while government dithers over reforms

By Sami Halabi

The Lebanese know little of modern telecommunications due to their governments disinterest in implementing serious reform of the sector (Photo: Sam Tarling)

Shame is a word used to describe the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper or ridiculous. All of which seem to apply to Lebanon’s telecommunications sector — once the beacon of Middle Eastern telecommunications.

To get an idea of how far Lebanese telecommunications has fallen, a small case study can be considered. In January 1995, Lebanon was at the forefront of the regional telecom industry, with some 512,000 mobile subscribers and 612,000 land-line subscribers. At this time the United Arab Emirates had just introduced mobile telephony and had 737,000 fixed service subscribers, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the United Nations agency for telecommunications which works with governments and the private sector to promote best market practices. Last month, Etisalat, the UAE state-owned mobile telecom company announced that it had reached 100 million subscribers across the 18 countries in which it operates. Lebanon has just reached around 2.4 million subscribers, around half of the population. Fixed line penetration totaled only 750,000 in March 2009 according to the World Bank.

Riad Bahsoun, telecom expert at the ITU, said Lebanon might reach 100 percent market penetration in second-generation mobile telephony in 2014. That is just four years before the end of Global System for Mobile’s (GSM) generation lifecycle, the measure by which a technology can exist as relevant in a market. In other words, it will take Lebanon another four years to fully adopt what is, even now, relatively obsolete technology, and even that limited progress is nowhere near certain.

Bahsoun, previously identified by the media as a contender for telecom minister, estimates that because best practices have not been followed in Lebanon since 1994, some 12,000 potential jobs have been lost and between $10 billion to $12 billion in revenue squandered. Last year Etisalat made $8.4 billion in revenues and reached a mobile penetration rate of over 200 percent in the UAE alone.

“We lost money, we lost chances, we lost jobs and we lost our dignity,” said Bahsoun.

What now?

Whatever the opportunities lost, one thing is for sure: the wholly government-owned and controlled sector has been making a pretty penny off its current pricing structure, which by far exceeds prices offered in neighboring countries.

According to Lebanon’s finance ministry, $1.36 billion was transferred to the national treasury from the telecom sector’s surplus last year, which exceeds the figure of $1.27 in revenues announced to the press by the telecom minister Charbel Nahas in February. The prices of bandwidth in Lebanon are also amongst the highest in the world, with one megabit per second (Mbps) of dedicated bandwidth costing consumers and businesses $1,350 per Mbps per month.

“If an Internet Service Provider (ISP) is located in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE or Saudi Arabia, the cost [of dedicated bandwidth] is $100 per Mbps per month,” said George Jaber, director of business development and partnerships in the Middle East North Africa at TATA communications.

But it is not just government ownership that impedes the telecommunications sector from achieving rates of growth similar to neighboring countries. All decisions related to pricing and revenue sharing are decided upon by the 30 member Cabinet, comprising Lebanon’s fractious political elements, while the sector’s governance structure has facilitated political interference, allowed the public sector to maintain its grapple-hold, and made decision making a long and tiresome affair.

Thus, it’s little surprise that Abdulmenaim Youssef, the head of Lebanon’s incumbent public operator, Ogero, also heads the Directorate of Operations and Maintenance at the Ministry of Telecommunications (MOT), whose job it is to oversee Ogero’s operations. Youssef has held both positions for half a decade and cannot be removed from either without a cabinet decision.

The current Telecom Minister, Charbel Nahas, was handpicked by the opposition leader Michel Aoun in a long, drawn-out battle that held up the cabinet’s formation for five months. No one from the ministry, including both director generals and the minister, responded to Executive’s repeated requests to comment.

“Ogero has the capacity today to offer more than two megabits per second. [They could offer] up to 4 Mbps, but they cannot do it because they do not have the tariff structure,” said Gaby Deek, president of the Professional Computer Association of Lebanon (PCA), a non-profit ICT association. The tariff structure cannot be put in place until agreed by the cabinet.

The issue becomes even more egregious when one considers that “half of government revenue from telecom last year was taxes,” according to Deek, who is also a member of the Lebanese Broadband Stakeholders Group, a local lobby group that pushes for broadband in Lebanon. Nahas has repeatedly stated that he seeks to separate commercial activities from taxes in the sector, but ultimately it is not his decision alone.

Change price, change structure

The only recent respite for the sector came in February 2009 when the cabinet decreased longstanding tariffs on mobile communications to levels that are still well outside of regional norms.

A recent World Bank report found that “these price reductions combined with MOT investments into mobile networks, together with the new management fee structure (which creates incentives to expand the subscriber base) have resulted in renewed marketing efforts by the managers of the two mobile service providers, a shift from pre-paid to post-paid subscribers, and recent increases in mobile penetration, yet there was no improvement in the quality of service to the consumers who are still suffering poor quality of service.”

The report also stated that a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration would result in gross domestic product growth between 1.2 percent and 1.5 percent “on a recurring basis.”

The “new management fee structure” the World Bank refers to was an agreement between the Lebanese government and the country’s two mobile operators, Alfa and mtc touch, who currently manage the mobile networks. The yearly one-time renewable contracts had accorded Alfa $6.75 per subscriber and mtc $6.66 per subscriber, in tandem with an aggressive expansion plan implemented by the operators and the ministry. As Executive went to print, the expansion was still underway and a second phase “is being discussed with the MOT to increase capacity up to 1.7 million customers,” for each operator, said Claude Bassil, general manager of mtc touch.

The MOT implemented a revenue sharing agreement with the operators for a period of six months, starting February 1, whereby each firm receives a monthly fee of $2.5 million plus 8.5 percent of revenues generated by the networks. The contracts can be renewed twice for a period of three months at a time.

“Since it is a revenue sharing model, the more revenues the MOT gets, the more revenues mtc touch gets,” said Bassil. “It is, however, more challenging than the previous model because then there was latent demand which we were capturing. But now we have to maximize revenues and increase ARPU [average revenue per user], which has never been easy anywhere in the world.”

Bassil’s company has repeatedly stated that it seeks to acquire a mobile license to own and operate their network, but this has not come to pass and Lebanon’s finance minister has stated to the media that privatization would not occur this year and was only a possibility in 2011.

“Until the privatization process is activated, we will do our best to continue managing MIC2 [the official name of mtc’s network],” said Bassil, who claims his company constitutes 57 percent of the mobile market. “Like any reasonable contract, the current management agreement allows for any party to request an adjustment or a review of certain conditions in case of major changes.”

Even though both mobile operators have expressed their continuing “commitment” to the Lebanese market, one can only wonder how long the operators will have the appetite to stay in a market while not being able to own their operations and set their own prices.

A new plan, sort of…

On the surface, not all the news coming out of the sector is disheartening. In late January, Minister Nahas presented a plan to raise the legal bandwidth in Lebanon from 2 Gigabits per second (Gbps) to 120 Gbps, a dramatic increase of Internet capacity in Lebanon. Lebanon’s total bandwidth is unknown due to the presence of grey and black market participants that make up “40 to 60 percent of the market,” according to Habib Torbey, head of the Lebanese Telecommunications Association (LTA).

All of this will come at a cost. Nahas has stated that he and the finance ministry have agreed to spend $166 million on the expansion plan and include the figure in the next budget, which has yet to be approved by the Cabinet or by Parliament. Lebanon is also expecting to finally connect itself to the International Middle East Western Europe 3 (IMEWE3) network by May, according to the minster. A submarine cable extending from Tripoli to Alexandria, Egypt, would link Lebanon to the network and effectively allow the country to stop relying on Cyprus for an international Internet connection via the CADMOS cable.

Despite media reports stating that Lebanon’s bandwidth will increase to 30 Gbps upon connection, documents obtained by Executive show that the actual capacity of the cable is 300 Gbps upon connection and can increase to 3,840 Gbps. An official from one of the companies investing in the cable, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Ogero had invested some $45 million in the cable. The official also said that because Lebanon will only be connected via one of the three fiber pairs — a subdivision of a fiber optic cable — the initial capacity Lebanon will have access to is 120 Gbps, which can be upgraded later to 1.2 terabits per second.

Many in the country are welcoming the addition to Lebanon’s infrastructure, yet it is still “not enough to meet current demand, especially if we intend to have real broadband,” said Mahassen Ajam, commissioner of Lebanon’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA).

The finance ministry could not confirm, however, either the cost of the expansion plan or that it did indeed include the IMEWE3 connection, as a spokesperson at the ministry said Ogero is given a lump sum each year to spend at its discretion. Moreover, several experts have contested the proposed timeframe for connecting Lebanon to the cable on technical grounds.

Despite repeated requests to the press office at the telecom ministry for details on the expansion plan, none were forthcoming.

“They haven’t given us a single detail [either] which shows you that something is not right,” said Torbey who is also president of GlobalCom Data Services, which owns Inconet Data Management (IDM), one of Lebanon’s largest ISPs. “If we are not up to speed with the details, then that means that there is not much in terms of details.”

According to the PCA’s Deek, the expansion plan is comprised of 23 projects. Contacted directly by Executive, Imad Maatouk, a department head at the general directorate of construction and equipment at the telecom ministry, would not confirm how many projects comprised the expansion plan, but stated that the ministry was still “studying” the plan. Maatouk also explained that the ministry was still in the process of issuing the tender book and added that “the minister is an economist, so surely his budgeting will be based on things that are very clear.”

Nonetheless, the lack of information has led some to cry foul.

“Because of the inaccuracy of the design it plans to use, the telecom ministry will spend a minimum of $166 million on this project, while it can build a more advanced network for a maximum of $40 million,” said Bahsoun, who is also a member of the International Telecom Council of Lebanon (ITCL), a group of Lebanese nationals in the diaspora who are high-level telecom executives and lobby for best practices.

The cost of the project is also much higher than the $64 million scheme proposed by the last Telecom Minister, Gebran Bassil, in March 2009.

Youssef — the head of Ogero and the MOT’s directorate of operations and maintenance — and Minister Bassil (Michel Aoun’s Son-in-law) were at loggerheads over implementation of the $64 million project.

An intelligence briefing document from the office of the former telecom minister, dated August 27, 2009, obtained by Executive, states: “The project is opposed…by Dr. Youssef, but this everyone knows [sic].” The document also states that, “The managers who are in charge of implementation, Naji Andraos and Aurore Feghali are apparently deliberately delaying the implementation for political reasons.”

Notably, the $64 million plan did not include details regarding the technology, or cost, of the “access layer,” the final crucial link between the telecom infrastructure and the user. Similarly, the structure of the access layer in the current $166 million plan had yet to be finalized, according to Maatouk.

Regardless of what form the access layer will take, the gap in proposed spending is still significant and unexplained. “It makes a big different because up to three-fourths of the cost of the initial $64 million of what was being proposed was related to digging; now it is $166 million and no one knows why,” said Bahsoun.

He explained that in 2002 the ITU presented the Telecom Ministry with an national backbone plan that did not apply the traditional method of creating several “rings” on the national and metropolitan levels, but instead went from the customer to existing infrastructure while allowing a redundancy buffer to ensure continuous service.

“This is what specialist’s call the cost of ignorance and this explains the large gap between the two budgets for the same project,” said Bahsoun. “As we all know, ignorance indeed is very costly.”

Without proper information, no one knows for sure when Lebanon’s telecom troubles will start to clear. The only thing that is certain is that the longer the current situation persists, the more opportunities the country misses.

“You cannot imagine after the crash of Dubai, how many companies contacted us to evaluate the possibility of switching their headquarters to Beirut,” said Torbey. “The single obstacle that prevented them from doing so was the poor performance and high prices of telecom connections.”

First published in Executive Magazine’s March Issue