DIRECTOR GENERAL OF OGERO TELECOM AUTHORITY
In January 2017, Lebanese President Michel Aoun signed a decree appointing Imad Kreidieh as Director General of Ogero telecom authority. Established in 1972, Ogero manages and maintains the fixed telephone network and constitutes its backbone infrastructure as well as that of mobile, operators, Data Service Providers (DSP), Internet Service Providers (ISP) and others.
During Arabnet Beirut 2017 in February, Kreidieh sat for his first interview as Director General with Arabnet Founder and CEO, Omar Christidis, to discuss the expectations and challenges of his mandate among calls for faster (currently it is one of the slowest) and more affordable internet.
Can you tell us how much data Lebanon is consuming, how are we growing in our capacity, and how is Ogero helping us to keep up? First, let us take a trip back in history and try to understand where we’re coming from. A few years ago, namely in 2007, Lebanon was working on STM1 (Synchronous Transport Module level-1). Today what we’re consuming in terms of data does not exceed 120 gigabytes. So we’ve come a long way, but we’re still struggling to provide all the needed capacity to the end user. Back in 2007, we had Lebanon running on 8 DSLAMS (Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexer) only, today we have 8000 DSLAMS service, and it is growing quickly.
This is the quantum leap that has happened in the past ten years and I have plenty of information to provide you on the way forward. Everything is being put in place in order to drastically improve the connectivity and the infrastructure of the country.
Let us jump right into that topic then. Can you tell us about concrete plans you currently have in place to improve connectivity in Lebanon? I would be lying to you if I told you that I have a very solid plan 3 weeks after taking office. So let’s not call it a plan – because the plan will be communicated by H.E. the Minister of Telecommunication. For the time being, however I can tell you that we are moving the MIC1, MIC2 as well as all ISPS, DSPS to the DWDM layer (optical multiplexing technology used to increase bandwidth over existing fiber networks), providing a higher capacity and speed which will start being really noticeable at the level of the mobile operator. We are expecting to reach much higher speed than what we are witnessing today.
On the retail side, after opening up the international capacity, we are opening up the national lengths and therefore, providing DSPS and ISPS with higher capacity in order for them to reduce their contention ratio.
On the fixed network, we’re launching the project tender to have full migration from the old TDMS (Time-division Multiplexing) that were installed back in 1994, with a soft switch with the capability of sustaining 2 million subscribers on the fixed network front which is going to be a major leap forward. Everybody knows that we have 100,000 requests for a fixed line that we are unable to cater for due to lack of capabilities at the switching level.
How many subscribers do we have today? Around one million.
So you are doubling the capacity? Yes, and we will be able to provide products and services on the software switching capabilities so it’s really something that is much needed for the country. We also started drafting the RFP for the maintenance of the copper network. We have the most recent copper network in the Middle East. In comparison, Dubai’s copper network is 40 years old and ours is only 23. But unfortunately the network has not been properly maintained, and this is one of the reasons why we are usually suffering from the DSL speed. Hence, we are planning to initiate the project to select subcontractors in the beginning of April to undertake this repair and maintenance of the copper network.
On the fiber network front, we are deploying fiber-to-the-offices package, for the heavy users, and you can see Ogero cars almost eveywhere in Beirut deploying the fiber. In fact, we recently connected the American University of Beirut with 4G, the first that we have established so far. Large banks are tapping into our infrastructure, interested in using the capacity from the new network that we’re deploying. It’s a long-term plan. We have the intent of connecting 380 major institutions in the country that will be completely relying on fiber for their internet and data transmission needs, and the work is progressing.
For someone who’s been in office for just three weeks, these sound like very ambitious deliverables for the upcoming months. What kind of impact will the end users feel - a little bit faster connection or immensely impressive? This is composed of different elements. The problem of speed is usually related to the infrastructure itself. What is beneath the ground in terms of copper network for example, but it is also related to the quality of cabling within homes and the type of equipment we’re using in order to connect to the internet. So in order to answer your question, the first thing that my team and the ministry team are working on as we speak is the mostlyawaited pricing schedule. Our inclination is to not charge people by speed and consumption because if your connection line can sustain 50MB per second, then be it, go and pay for 50mb per second. I am not going to bill according to speed.
In the upcoming months, we will double or triple the actual internet speed. Just by opening the DSLAM a little bit, and taking out the limitation on the speed. The only speed that will be maintained is on the unlimited bundle, because we have few concerns at this front. But for the other packages, it will be all you can handle in terms of speed, you will have different consumption packages for everybody. It is going to be a major move forward, and I hope that our citizens in Lebanon will be happy with what we’re doing at this stage.
Am sure they will – what you’re saying is music to our ears! It is a continuous effort and gradually we will be able to witness the progress.
But we need to be more pragmatic as we deploy the fiber-to-the-home – while noting that I don’t want to call it that, because there is a huge debate over the economic model behind deploying fiberto-the-home. The cost of connectivity for the fiber-to-the-home is not at the reach of everybody in Lebanon. So it’s going be a combination between fiber-to-thecabinet, fiber-to-the-building, and fiberto-the-home. But once this exercise is completed, we will be having a minimum speed of 75mb per second, up to 300mb per second. This is going to take a couple of years, but we will see it then.
Ogero’s role is infrastructure and connectivity. More broadly, it is part of the government direction to support the digital sector in Lebanon. What are the key challenges that you see today for the growth of the digital industry in Lebanon and that you are working to solve within the Ministry’s strategy? I don’t want to sound harsh, but it is a matter of fact that we don’t have, and never came across, a real strategic vision on how the sector should move. This is most unfortunate. Maybe we were busier doing tactics in order to have a political impact for the satisfaction of the public, but we never really worked on a long term vision and I think this is a major hurdle. optimize the use of our copper network, economically deploy the fiber, and provide the community with transport means that would cater for the businesses. As far as the vision and strategy going forward, we took an initiative at Ogero to compose a steering committee of very capable people within the authority, to work with the private sector represented by ICT members in order to draft the vision that we would like the Prime Minister, the Government, as well as the President of the Republic to agree to and, based on this vision, to have a road map that goes over a period of 5 years.
Are there other things that you believe the government should be doing whether in the realm of legislation or regulation to support this industry? Yes, absolutely. The Central Bank took an outstanding initiative which is the Circular 331 that mobilized an amount of funding for startups to create and promote new ideas and initiatives. Unfortunately, it is falling short because of the legislation around it. We need to help these startups blossom. However, we’re seeing most of the companies that have been created under 331 are now incorporating in the UK or the US in order to facilitate their exit strategy.
I think we should have done our homework from a legal perspective in order to insure that whatever initiatives created in Lebanon remain in Lebanon so the country profits from the intellectual property as well as from the predominance of the economic outcome of such initiatives. And I think the government needs to work very hard on creating the overall ecosystem that will help foster those initiatives that are being generated in the country.
Banks today have a hunger for innovating, and they’re seeing their customers moving towards digital channels, fintech, Ondemand, etc. This is certainly an important target sector for you to support the innovation in this domain. What are some of the things that you are doing to work with those banks? Ogero has been engaging banks for the past few years and actually the top banks are now using the VPN service that Ogero has in place and we are now connecting banks like Audi, LGB, Byblos Bank, and the list is very long. We are supporting the banking system with connectivity in order to promote their business and secure the transfer of their data. This exercise has been ongoing for a while, it is not new. I am receiving now meeting requests with chairmen of banks in order to open up and broaden this relation between Ogero and the banking system.
So we have funding, we know infrastructure is an issue, and we now have more of a sense of how we’re going to tackle that, and we’ve mentioned regulation. Are there any other components that you believe we need to be working on today? The will. First we need the will of the people to understand what are the challenges we are facing as a company called Ogero. We have a tremendous amount of challenges. We need the support of the people to understand that it is not with the press of a button that things will change overnight. We’re working very hard in order to improve things. It’s not easy, we do have the qualifications in house. But unfortunately we are growing old. And we need a new breed of engineers and technicians to keep the boat afloat. Second we need to participate, not only criticize, but also come up with initiatives and good ideas in order to promote the sector. n Our audience here would agree that infrastructure is the major challenge. We really need to fix our infrastructure,