End in Sight to Lebanon’s Crippling Internet Problem

October 6, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Oliver Holmes

2011-10-05T172718Z_162890397_GM1E7A6045E01_RTRMADP_3_LEBANON-INTERNET

An engineer is seen working on Microwave seamless connectivity equipment, at the rooftop of TerraNet heaquarters, an Internet Service Provider (ISP), in Beirut October 5, 2011. On Saturday, the Ministry of Telecommunications introduced a new, high-speed and cheaper Internet plan for private Internet Service Providers (ISP) to sell on to customers. The plan aims to reduce end-user prices for digital subscriber lines (DSL) by 80 percent, while raising speeds up to eight times. 

REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

BEIRUT, Oct 5 (Reuters) – For Sara Darwiche, it has been more than problematic running her fast-paced Internet company out of Lebanon, a country with Internet access that is among the worst in the world.

The “invite only” website ChouChic.com gives its members the opportunity to buy surplus stocks of fashionable clothes at discounted prices. It works on the idea that the scarcity of the clothes coupled with the time limit on sales — 48 hours to a week — will nurture impulse buying and push up sales. The strategy is called flash selling.

But for ChouChic’s main customers, who are Lebanese, there is nothing flashy about buying online here.

“Sometimes the website cuts and people think the sale is over. It really affects the quality,” she told Reuters. “We open our sales everyday at noon and for some reason the Internet usually cuts out then for five minutes.”

For a company aiming to sell the majority of stock in the first ten minutes of a sale opening, connectivity issues can be devastating.

“We needed a lot of modifications to compensate for the slow Internet,” she said, adding that the website was now hosted in the United States. “For luxury fashion, it needs to look like the goods are in front of you so the resolution of the photos needs to be high. But we had to lower the resolution as upload speeds were too slow.”

Lebanon is regarded as a fortress of Arab entrepreneurship, with a vibrant services sector and a business community that is famed for its unyielding tenacity even during the depths of war. But sluggish and expensive Internet has been an embarrassing blot on the economy, and Internet-based companies such as ChouChic are rare.

On Saturday, the Ministry of Telecommunications introduced a new, high-speed and cheaper Internet plan for private Internet Service Providers (ISP) to sell on to customers. The plan aims to reduce end-user prices for digital subscriber lines (DSL) by 80 percent, while raising speeds up to eight times.

If it is implemented smoothly, the plan will provide relief to hundreds of thousands of Lebanese Internet users and could boost economic growth. But for years to come, the economy may bear the scars of the political bickering, vested financial interests and negligence that kept Lebanon in the slow lanes of the information superhighway.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

“While other countries in the region have capitalised on (the Internet), we have missed it,” said Nassib Ghobril, chief economist of the Byblos Bank Group.

“They have moved ahead of us and now have a comparative advantage. A lot of companies that rely on the Internet look elsewhere to base themselves.”

Ookla, a company that tests Internet speeds around the world, has often ranked Lebanon last on its global Net Index, and the country has generally been lower down than many less developed nations such as Afghanistan and Burkina Faso.

“Lebanon is a services economy and society. Not having Internet is like not having foreign languages,” Khaldoun Farhat, CEO of private ISP provider Terranet, said at his offices opposite Beirut’s port.

Farhat has repeatedly tried to bypass what he calls a “narrow view” of the Internet by the Ministry of Telecommunications. He bought Internet capacity from satellites, made failed requests to buy bandwidth from nearby Cyprus, and tried to import his own Internet equipment which got stuck at customs, he says, for over a year.

“When I wake up, the first thing I think about is, will we get increased capacity today?” he said.

Businessman Mark Daou spent the last few months campaigning for faster internet through a Facebook group titled “Lebanese Want Fast Internet”, which has almost 50,000 supporters.

“Slow speeds affect me in the advertising business as all our resources are on the Internet. Especially now as many of our clients are asking for a lot of online advertising,” he said.

“I have to wait for Saturday night, when Internet usage is low, to upload files to Saudi and Dubai.”

Lebanon has long had the physical capacity to supply cheap, high-speed Internet; in December 2010 a 13,000 km (8,000 mile) submarine fiber optic cable linking the country to India, the Middle East and Western Europe began operating. But access to the cable was delayed until July by bickering between the Ministry of Telecommunications and Ogero, the government’s land-line provider, over usage rights.

The dispute was considered politically motivated as the ministry and Ogero are controlled by opposing sides of Lebanon’s political spectrum, which is deeply divided by religion, sect and economic ideology.

“In the telecoms sector, everyone wants a piece of the pie. It’s a cash cow,” Daou said. “The sector is almost completely controlled by the government. It has 80 percent of the market and the private sector cannot buy fixed licences. Private companies have to renew their Internet licence every year.”

A lack of revenue sources in other economic sectors, Daou said, has made the government see the Internet as an important source of funds. “The government was the only supplier. They needed the money to finance the treasury. It was generating money and nobody was complaining,” he said.

Lebanese Minister of Telecommunications Nicolas Sehnawi told Reuters that successive governments were unable to push through laws to cheapen and speed up connectivity.

“Other (fiber optic) cables in the region were connected before. In those countries, the internal governments have more manoeuverability. We have had big periods of paralysis.”

Last week, a 1 megabit per second (Mbps) connection, the second-fastest option at the time, cost around $76 per month. Under the new pricing plan, a 1 Mbps connection will be the slowest option available and cost around $16.

Economists and business leaders say the economic benefits could be considerable. They quote a 2008 report commissioned by the Ministry of Finance which estimated 10 percent growth in broadband penetration would increase gross domestic product by as much as 1.5 percent.

ChouChic’s Darwiche said she was looking forward to upgrading her website. “We are going to add many functions and the images are going to be a lot clearer.”

Two major ISPs which rely on Ogero for bandwidth supply, Terranet and IDM, have already upgraded their Internet services to comply with the new plan.

Even now, however, there is still concern among some private ISPs that Ogero, which controls around 80 percent of Lebanon’s Internet cables, will delay further in providing the upgraded service.

“There is not a single person in the country that can obstruct the decision. It will be implemented in a matter of hours and days,” Sehnawi said on Saturday in response to such allegations.

But a poll conducted by the “Lebanese Want Fast Internet” Facebook group found only 11 percent of the 1,631 people who replied said they had their DSL packages upgraded to higher speeds over the weekend.

13-41

India’s Support For Palestinian State

October 6, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, TMO

2011-09-23T155006Z_2080381998_GM1E79N1TQG01_RTRMADP_3_LEBANON

A Palestinian child looks through a Palestinian flag he is holding, during a rally in support of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations, at Mar Elias camp for Palestinian refugees in Beirut September 23, 2011.

REUTERS/ Jamal Saidi

NEW DELHI: India has reaffirmed its support for Palestine’s petition for membership of United Nations as an independent and sovereign state. The issue is at present being considered by the UN Security Council’s Standing Committee (SC) on Admission of New Members for full UN membership. This committee includes five permanent members of Security Council and ten term members. India is among the eight SC members who declared their support promptly for Palestine’s petition last Friday (September 30). The other SC members who have taken this stand are China, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Lebanon, Nigeria and Gabon. The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and European Union (EU) have also expressed their support for Palestine. China and Russia are among the five permanent members of UNSC. Britain and France are permanent members from among EU members.

Palestine’s petition was forwarded to UN Security Council (UNSC) after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas laid it out during his address during the 66th annual session of UN General Assembly in New York (September 23). The UNSC forwarded it to SC after considering it during a brief meeting. Abbas certainly created diplomatic history by formally presenting the Palestinian request before the UN. This stand of Abbas also carries tremendous diplomatic significance as United States had made efforts to pressurize the Palestinian leader from not moving to UN. Besides, US has also made it clear that Washington would veto the Palestinian request at UNSC.

Defying US pressure, thus Abbas successfully created diplomatic waves and history by formally seeking a full member status in the UN and recognition of 1967 borders in West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza. At present, Palestine has a permanent observer entity status at the UN.

Though New Delhi has supported Palestinians from the beginning, the recent years have also been witness to India strengthening its ties with United States as well as Israel. By clearly stating India’s support for Palestinian’s demand, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh removed apprehensions of there being any change in New Delhi’s stand towards Palestine. During his address at the UN General Assembly, the Indian Prime Minister reaffirmed India’s support for Palestinian people’s struggle. He drew attention to the Palestinian question still being “unresolved and a source of great instability and violence.” The Prime Minister asserted: “India is steadfast in its support for the Palestinian people’s struggle for a sovereign, independent, viable and united state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital, living within secure and recognizable borders side by side and at peace with Israel.” Indicating that India will continue its support for Palestinians’ demand for full membership in the UN, he said: “We look forward to welcoming Palestine as an equal member of the United Nations.”

India reaffirmed its support for Palestine’s bid for membership of UN at SC meeting. Drawing attention to India’s support for Palestinians, India’s Permanent Representative to UN, Hardeep Singh Puri said that the SC on Admission of New States, “should report to the Security Council that the Palestinian application for membership be recommended to the General Assembly.” The Palestinians’ membership application “is not incompatible with, nor does it exclude, direct negotiations between the parties to resolve the final status issues,” Puri pointed out.

Irrespective of whether the US veto prevents Palestine from securing a full membership of UN, certain points cannot be ignored. It has been diplomatically wise of Palestinian leader to approach the UN with request for membership as a “State.” India has also played its diplomatic cards well by supporting this demand of Palestine. Here it may be noted, unilaterally India has never strayed away from according Palestine the status of a State.

India is the first non-Arab country to have recognized Palestinian State in 1988. A Palestinian embassy is in New Delhi. The foundation stone of this embassy was laid on October 7, 2008 by Prime Minister Singh and the visiting Palestinian President Abbas. The two leaders formally dedicated the building “to the people of Palestine as a gift from the people of India.” The then four-day visit of President Abbas was accorded the status of a “State” visit.

Undeniably, India’s solidarity with Palestinian people was also asserted by leader of Indian freedom struggle Mahatma Gandhi. In 1947, at the UN General Assembly, India voted against the partition of Palestine. India is also the first non-Arab State to recognize Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in 1974. India opened its Representative Office to the Palestine Authority in Gaza in 1996. This was shifted to Ramallah in 2003.

Earlier this year at the UN, on February 18, India voted in favour of a draft resolution which termed Israeli settlement policies as “illegal.” India explained that this decision was “consistent” with India’s “long-standing position of solidarity with Palestinian people and our position that settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are illegal under international law.” The resolution was vetoed by the US. It was first veto at UN by President Barack Obama’s government.

Unilaterally and through organizations such as UN, India has always supported the Palestinian struggle. If Palestine does not succeed in becoming the member of UN as a full State, it would still retain the option of asking the 193-member General Assembly for enhanced status, which may not be difficult to secure.

By approaching the UN and securing support of countries like India, Palestine has succeeded in drawing international community’s attention to their struggle. It may be noted, direct talks between Israel and Palestine have been stalled since September 2010.  While Palestine is not against talks with Israel, it is against pursuing them without a freeze on Jewish settlements. The UN-diplomacy has suddenly added a new spring in mediators’ efforts to bring Israel and Palestine to the negotiating table.

13-41