The Internet penetration rose dramatically in Lebanon, from 58% in 2013 to 91% in 2017 with mobile subscriptions accounting for 76.1% of this number. Nearly every Lebanese owns a smartphone in the country and 91% use Wi-Fi or data mobile service to connect to the Internet. But despite the demand to regulate the market and keep it competitive, all the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are required to buy the bandwidth from a sole state-owned company – Ogero – working under the supervision of the Lebanese Ministry of Telecommunications (MoT).
There are two state-owned ISPs. Since no law regulates their licensing, private ISPs currently obtain a permit by decree from the Ministry of Telecommunications. As such, political influence can significantly interfere with the allocation of contracts to private ISPs and mobile phone operators.
State Monopoly over Fixed Line Internet Distribution
The MoT owns two submarine cables, one is landing in Cyprus and the other one in Syria. Both were installed in the second half of 1990s. A third submarine cable links Lebanon to Egypt, Italy, Saudi Arabia, UAE, France and Pakistan since 2010. Part of it is also owned by the Lebanese public company OGERO - Organisme de Gestion et d'Exploitation de l'ex-Radio Orient, founded in 1972 by the Lebanese State. Working as a contractor for the MoT, Ogero requires all Lebanese ISPs to use its bandwidth but the price at which Ogero buys the bandwidth is not public. According to Executive Magazine and by the most conservative estimates, Ogero controls over 60% of the market for Internet service provision.
This near-monopoly has direct consequences on access to information. For example in Arsal, a border town in northeast of Lebanon, 160,000 residents were deprived of affordable Internet access for three years at a time when armed Islamist groups where frequently clashing with the Lebanese Army in the area. While Ogero continues to operate in the town, the installation and monthly fees to obtain fixed-line Internet service were exorbitant. For this reason, an additional mobile Internet shutdown has effectively cut off the town.
Slow or No Internet
Despite the high Internet capacity technically provided by submarine cables, the Internet speed at user level is very slow in Lebanon and the country lacks the infrastructure for high-quality broadband connections, relying mostly on existing landline telephone networks. Fixed broadband connection for households in September 2018 in Lebanon, according to the Ookla Net Index, averaged for download at 6.22 Mbps (global average: 49.26 Mbps) and for upload at 3.64 Mbps (global average: 24.20 Mbps). Lebanon ranked 127 out of 130 countries included in the Index.
The connection is slowed down for several reasons.
- Fiber optics: Early 2018, the Prime Minister announced the installation of fiber optics in the country over the next four years. Installation has started in some neighborhoods of Beirut late 2018.
- Infrastructure: Despite the plans to install fiber optics, Internet speed remains slow for most individual users. The final part of the connection from the fiber optics network to the households is slowed down by the much slower copper cable infrastructure.
- Speed provided by Ogero: While there are no data available on the exact amount of international web-capacity Lebanon is receiving, only a small percentage of this capacity is passed down to the private sector ISPs, according to Executive Magazine.
- High prices: The Internet prices are set by the government and linked to Internet speeds, and any change needs a decree issued by the government. Which means that even if more bandwidth were available, ISPs would have to wait for a government decree to lower their prices for faster Internet.
- Power cuts: A lack of stable electricity production in Lebanon leads to daily power cuts of up to eight hours. Those who cannot bridge the cuts with privately-owned generators cannot use their Wi-Fi, and have therefore to recourse to expensive mobile connection.
In 2017, it was estimated that 76.1% of Lebanese were subscribed to a mobile connection. Mobile Internet, as a more reliable way to access the network, is costly in Lebanon. MTC-touch and Alfa are running Lebanon’s mobile networks on behalf of the government and operate as a duopoly. The telecommunication sector is estimated to be worth at least USD 6 billion, which is the “largest single source of much-needed revenue for the government” (Budde). In late 2006 it was stated that telecommunications revenues account for 38% of the state budget. All tariffs, including in the data services sector, are set by the government.” Insofar there seems very little political appetite to open this market for competition that would eventually lead to lower consumer prices, but also to lower revenues for the government.
The main challenges for mobile connection are:
- High costs: mobile data requirement to renew pre-paid lines for a fee every 30 days; and
- Little coverage in remote rural areas.
The Will to Regulate Online Content
In Lebanon, almost one out of two citizens is worried that either the State or the companies check what they do online. As a result, 75% of them agree that the Internet should be more tightly regulated to protect the privacy of users. There is currently no law to regulate the Internet and online content. The only law pertaining to the Internet, adopted in September 2018, is about electronic transactions and protection of personal data. However, it does not go far enough in the actual protection of citizens’ privacy as the law was drafted several years ago, before many of the more recent challenges were identified. Another draft law, covering the entire media sector, including online media, is currently in the pipeline of parliamentary committees. The only regulatory authority in the telecommunications sector is the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), whose main mission is to identify the ISPs and grant them a license. It is also in charge of keeping the market competitive and transparent. However, the TRA has been effectively suspended by a judiciary decision in 2011 and a ministerial decision in 2015, transferring all its powers to the Ministry of Telecommunications.
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