Lebanon web suffers from 'world's slowest connection'
- 13 October 2011
- From the section Business
In March this year web users in Lebanon were shocked to learn the internet speed in their country ranked rock bottom in the world.
It came in placed 186th - behind Zambia, Vanuatu and even war-ravaged countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.
The data, published by speedtest.net, spurred the country's online activists into action.
Campaign groups like Ontornet ('Ontor' a play on the Arabic for 'wait') and Flip the Switch sprang up on Facebook, while Twitter became awash with real-time feedback on people's web experiences.
"A file that takes me 16 hrs to download in Lebanon is downloaded in 6 minutes in France!" wrote @Joanna_2983.
Another, @Lebanese_facts, quipped: "Loading…loading..loading… *15 mins later* page failed to load."
And @Doreen_Khoury wrote: "If you live in Lebanon never go on vacation longer than a week; you get used to 24 hour electricity and fast internet."
Online protests have gained widespread support from household consumers all the way up to big businesses.
Sensing growing unrest, the Telecoms Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui took action pushing through a decree in September committing to increase the country's internet speeds by up to eight times - while reducing costs by more than two-thirds.
According to the government, this will be achieved by connecting to the high capacity fibre optic India-Middle East-Western Europe (IMEWE) submarine cable.
The IMEWE cable had been available for use from December 2010, but had not been switched on because of a dispute between the Telecoms Ministry and Ogero, the government-owned telecoms company responsible for the cable's maintenance.
Imad Taraby is the chairman and chief executive of the data service provider Cedarcom, a company that buys internet bandwidth from the Telecoms Ministry and then sells it onto consumers.
He says preferential treatment of government-owned suppliers is the real cause of Lebanon's slow internet.
"Investors fear investing into this sector," says Mr Taraby.
"Why? Because we have one-year licences and competition is unfair. We pay so much high taxes up to 59% while government operators don't pay any tax and that doesn't allow [us] to compete fairly, by default, sooner or later and I'm talking within three to six months there's a very high risk that private operators exit the market and that will instate more and more monopoly.
"You need a private sector. All the innovation comes from the private sector."
So in a country that aspires to be the 'Silicon Valley' of the Middle East, how does Lebanon's slow internet affect tech-based businesses?
Mark Daou works in advertising and PR, and also runs the Fast Lebanon Facebook campaign group.
"Basically it's waiting, waiting, waiting and if you're still not bored you wait a little bit more," he says.
"We've got large files that we upload to offices outside of Lebanon. We usually do that on Saturday nights and on Sundays during the day because that is the time when the least people are using the internet."
"It's the best way to make sure you don't get cut off when you are uploading a 200MB file and have to start over again."
For Mr Daou, the decree doesn't go far enough.
"There's still a cap on the amount of internet usage you can use and it's ridiculously low. What we're looking for is a big master plan. Something that would really say Lebanon sees the internet as a human right for every individual in Lebanon to stay educated, to stay up to date, to be able to progress and to have a fair chance in this life."
However, for other businesses the internet's biggest drawback is its cost.
Samer Karam is the director of Seeqnce, a start-up accelerator which helps small web companies by sharing knowledge and aggregating office facilities.
"From what I've seen the creative industry, in its creativity, hasn't been stifled," says Mr Karam.
"However, due to the very high prices they have been unable to produce content at the speed and capacity that they are capable of and publish it online and even if they were able to, their consumers wouldn't be able to consume it.
"So, effectively a place like Seeqnce, where there is a lot of creativity, we end up paying roughly $1,200 (£765) a month for a one megabit connection which is absurd.
"It's roughly 100 times more than what you would pay in a developed country."
But Mr Karam is optimistic about the future.
"What we anticipate to happen, if this industry were to be opened up and the connections were to get bigger, is we could potentially return to our former glory as the Paris of the Middle East.
"The East would meet the West halfway in Beirut, and the cultures of the East could take a step closer to the West."
Since the issuing of the government's decree, social media sites have been abuzz with speculation about when the internet will speed up.
Speaking shortly after the decree's passing, Firas Abi-Nassif, the adviser to the telecoms minister, explained what the public could expect.
"It's still obviously not at par with modern or developed countries' types of internet speeds," he said.
"This is just the first step before we get to much faster, much more powerful internet through the fibre network which, as we speak, is being deployed in the country."
This week the country's The Daily Star newspaper published research that found that of 550 people surveyed, 68% said their internet connection was "slow and nothing had changed" since the beginning of October, the month the government said that faster speeds would be passed onto consumers.
According to Mr Abi-Nassif speeds will pick up as the country moves toward a full 3G wireless internet service by early November. Something to celebrate perhaps, were it not for the fact that Japan introduced the same technology a decade ago.