Arabnet - The Quarterly - - Business - By Mo­hamed Sal­hab | @mamiko_­so­hayl

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,

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