ICT in­fra­struc­ture: Flip­ping the switch

Le­banon’s fiber op­tic in­ter­net back­bone is largely in place, but re­mains un­used

Executive Magazine - - Contents -

Boost­ing Le­banon’s in­ter­net speeds — as well as its GDP — would be sur­pris­ingly sim­ple. The coun­try has a new, multi mil­lion dollar fiber op­tic net­work that forms a back­bone for data traf­fic. It is lay­ing idle, how­ever, be­cause a few switches needed to pass in­for­ma­tion have not been flipped.

That is, the fiber op­tic ca­bles are laid, con­nect­ing the cen­tral of­fices (COs) to­gether and with heavy users. COs op­er­ate like tra­di­tional tele­phone switch­boards and route con­tent to end users and other COs. The dense wave­length di­vi­sion mul­ti­plex­ing (DWDM) ma­chines — tech­nol­ogy that com­bines sev­eral data chan­nels into the same pulse of light — are in the COs, wait­ing to be used. But the net­work is off. There is no data trav­el­ing through the ca­bles.

“The [net­work] that was im­ple­mented last year isn’t be­ing used at all. It hasn’t been ac­cepted by our ser­vices,” af­firms Mar­got Moussy, ad­vi­sor to Min­is­ter of Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Boutros Harb.

The un­used fiber op­tic back­bone con­nects al­most all of Le­banon’s ap­prox­i­mately 350 COs, and it also con­nects heavy users across the coun­try, such as hos­pi­tals, uni­ver­si­ties, min­istries and busi­nesses, ac­cord­ing to Dany El-Horr, vice pres­i­dent at civil works com­pany Con­sol­i­dated En­gi­neer­ing and Trad­ing (CET). The com­pany was com­mis­sioned to lay the fiber op­tic back­bone in 2011 by then Min­is­ter of Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Ni­co­las Sehnaoui, with Al­ca­tel–Lu­cent as sub­con­trac­tors who in­stalled the fiber op­tic ca­bles. The bud­get for the project was $55 mil­lion. How­ever, as soon as the new min­is­ter came in, El-Horr claims that pay­ments to the com­pany stopped and CET was de­nied ac­cess to the COs to test the equip­ment.

Walid Karam, ad­vi­sor to the cur­rent min­is­ter, claims that the projects were halted be­cause in some places the “equip­ment didn’t pass the test” or meet the stan­dards set by the min­istry. Nei­ther he nor Moussy were able to say what per­cent of the project was ac­tu­ally at tech­ni­cal fault, nor did they know when the net­work would be turned on, though they added that some work was be­ing re­done with the in­tent of even­tu­ally turn­ing on the net­work.

When Ex­ec­u­tive spoke with CET, El-Horr claimed that “ev­ery­thing that was asked from us to be done, we’ve done it,” adding that “of course it’s a huge project, no one, not one per­son, can see all of the project.”

HUNG UP ON COP­PER

But wher­ever the fault lies, the coun­try is still re­ly­ing on its older more de­crepit in­fra­struc­ture. Le­banese in­ter­net speeds av­er­age around 3.4 megabits per sec­ond (Mbit/s) ac­cord­ing to an Ookla Net In­dex for house­hold down­loads, cal­cu­lated based on those who ran a speed test over a 30 day pe­riod up to Fe­bru­ary 19, 2015. How­ever, this re­search method might be biased to the con­nec­tions of those users tech savvy enough to ac­tu­ally look up their con­nec­tion speed. Ex­ec­u­tive tried to down­load Ookla’s en­tire source data dat­ing back to Jan­uary 2008, but the 1.6 GB file would have taken 13 hours.

No busi­ness Ex­ec­u­tive has asked has cited a con­nec­tion higher than 22 Mbit/s, which is about as fast as you get on a shared net­work, ac­cord­ing to Richard Azoury, head of busi­ness devel­op­ment at Solid­ere, which benefits from an older fiber op­tic net­work stem­ming from Beirut Cen­tral Dis­trict (BCD) and con­nect­ing a limited num­ber of COs. Some in­ter­na­tional busi­nesses at BCD are able to get higher speeds via a ded­i­cated con­nec­tion, though as Azoury puts it “you get what you pay for.”

“There is a di­rect cor­re­la­tion be­tween in­ter­net speed, growth, pro­duc­tiv­ity, pros­per­ity and com­pet­i­tive­ness. Le­banon suf­fers on all those be­cause of our slow in­ter­net,” he says.

The cur­rent in­fra­struc­ture we have is mostly made out of cop­per, which was rolled out be­gin­ning in the 1990s. The older fiber op­tic net­work that makes

up a short cen­tral loop con­nect­ing five COs — in­clud­ing Adlieh, Jdei­deh and Tripoli — is cur­rently car­ry­ing in­ter­net data, de­spite the fact that it was ini­tially meant to be used for Ogero billing and back of­fice traf­fic, ac­cord­ing to Maroun Cham­mas, CEO of in­ter­net ser­vice provider IDM. “It’s do­ing in­ter­net, but it has a lot of lim­i­ta­tions. Be­cause it’s not meant to carry in­ter­net traf­fic,” he says, adding “It’s like a [lo­cal area net­work]. It was not a [wide area net­work]. It was for their in­ter­nal net­work.”

Be­sides the limited ca­pac­ity of the fiber op­tic ca­bles link­ing a few COs, the rest of the net­work is old, le­gacy cop­per. And the cop­per ca­bles are “not in the best state,” ac­cord­ing to min­istry ad­vi­sor Karam.

But even in the best state, fast in­ter­net can’t travel very far on cop­per. Ghassan Has­bani, CEO of ICT man­ag­ing and con­sult­ing firm Gray­coats and for­merly part­ner at Booz & Com­pany, ex­plains that lim­i­ta­tions start at about 200 me­ters from the CO. And the far­ther you get from the CO, the slower the con­nec­tion gets.

How­ever, turn­ing on the new fiber would al­lows speeds of up to 100 Mbit/s ac­cord­ing to Has­bani. While fiber lines do not yet reach the ‘last mile’ from the COs to the in­ter­net user — mean­ing many at home may not see as­tro­nom­i­cal re­sults — turn­ing on the net­work would al­low much higher ca­pac­ity for the heavy users.

Turn­ing on the fiber op­tic in­fra­struc­ture would not solve all of the coun­try’s in­ter­net prob­lems. Fast in­ter­net re­mains ex­pen­sive, as prices per megabit are set by gov­ern­ment de­crees, which in prac­tice take time to is­sue. While the num­bers cir­cu­lat­ing on in­ter­net speeds are in­con­sis­tent, Mas­sachusetts based cloud ser­vices provider Aka­mai pegs the global av­er­age con­nec­tion speed at 4.5 Mbit/s in its State of the In­ter­net 2014 re­port for Q3. The re­port cited the UAE’s in­ter­net speed at 4.7, with 3.5 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion hav­ing speeds above 10 Mbit/s, but 51 per­cent of its con­nec­tions over 4 Mbit/s.

In Le­banon, this was a piece of in­fra­struc­ture that was a con­sid­er­able in­vest­ment on the part of the gov­ern­ment, yet has so far not gen­er­ated any gains. Par­tic­u­larly con­sid­er­ing Le­banon’s in­ter­na­tional ca­pac­ity which, depend­ing on who you ask, falls some­where be­tween 400 and 600 gi­ga­bits per sec­ond. Even if th­ese num­bers are in­flated Le­banon’s in­ter­na­tional ca­pac­ity is by far un­der­uti­lized. In­creas­ing cit­i­zens’ ac­cess to broad­band has been cited as hav­ing a di­rect im­pact on the coun­try’s eco­nomic per­for­mance. In low and mid­dle in­come coun­tries, a 10 per­cent in­crease in broad­band pen­e­tra­tion has cor­re­lated to an ad­di­tional 1.38 per­cent in GDP growth, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Union’s re­search pre­sented in its Im­pact of Broad­band on the Econ­omy 2012 re­port.

In most economies, gov­ern­ment in­vest­ments in state in­fra­struc­ture are paired with a strong readi­ness from the ini­tia­tors of the project to put the in­fra­struc­ture to use as soon as it is ready so that its in­vestors, cit­i­zens and the over­all econ­omy reap the benefits. Par­tic­u­larly when this in­vest­ment is in tech­no­log­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture, stan­dard prac­tice is to ap­ply it be­fore it gets out­dated. While fiber op­tic ca­bles made of glass are good for a life­time pro­vided the coat­ings re­main in good shape, ac­cord­ing to the Fiber Op­tic As­so­ci­a­tion, in­creas­ing global band­widths and the prod­ucts and ser­vices that fit new in­ter­net speeds will likely even­tu­ally make the re­sis­tant fiber op­tic ca­ble ob­so­lete. Just as not even 20 years ago when 56 Kbit/s would be the deluxe ac­cess to in­ter­net on dial-up, Google Fiber may yet take over the world, with claims that its speeds are “100 times faster that to­day’s ba­sic broad­band.”

But Le­banon is not most economies. Were the fiber to be turned on, it would de­liver in­ter­net to many spa­ces where learn­ing and com­mer­cial ac­tiv­ity is car­ried out, hik­ing up na­tional pro­duc­tiv­ity. “To­day there is a fiber [back­bone], let’s switch it on and let’s deal with the end user, last mile when we come to it,” says Cham­mas.

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