Un­leash the speed

Ogero flips a switch and lo­cal in­ter­net trans­forms

Executive Magazine - - Front Page -

Dur­ing five days in April, Lebanese in­ter­net users were given proof that their no­to­ri­ously ter­ri­ble con­nec­tions have been kept that way on pur­pose. Le­banon had be­come a laugh­ing stock. Back when Ookla – the US-based op­er­a­tor of the ubiq­ui­tous speedtest.net – of­fered pub­lic rank­ings of av­er­age in­ter­net down­load speeds by coun­try, Le­banon was al­ways near the very bot­tom of the list. With the rank­ings no longer pub­lic, it is hard to re­li­ably say where we stand to­day, but we do not re­ally need an of­fi­cial rank­ing to know typ­i­cal Lebanese down­load speeds of 1 to 2 megabits per se­cond (mbps) are pa­thetic.

Last month, the pub­licly owned gate­keeper of Le­banon’s in­ter­net – Ogero – con­ducted five days of speed tests in dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try. The re­sults were jaw-drop­ping. The com­pany’s new direc­tor gen­eral (ap­pointed by the cab­i­net in Jan­uary) claimed on Twit­ter that some users reached down­load speeds of 27 mbps, a 1,250 per­cent in­crease from the 2 mbps stan­dard of the past few years. The ma­jor­ity of speedtest.net re­sults tweeted at Ogero showed speeds around 16 mbps. And this with­out any in­ten­sive in­fras­truc­ture projects. It was pro­gram­mable.

“We’ve been say­ing for years that a sim­ple ad­min­is­tra­tive de­ci­sion would im­prove the in­ter­net by at least 30 per­cent in terms of band­width, in terms of speed,” ex­plains Maroun Cham­mas, CEO of IDM, a lo­cal in­ter­net ser­vice provider (ISP).

THE BAD OLD DAYS

The Min­istry of Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions (MoT) is the sec­tor’s stew­ard. In ad­di­tion to de­vis­ing and im­ple­ment­ing pol­icy, it owns nearly all the in­fras­truc­ture (fiber, cop­per and mo­bile-phone base sta­tions). On the MoT’s re­com- men­da­tion, the gov­ern­ment de­crees the price of ev­ery phone call (mo­bile and land­line), and the min­istry’s hand is heavy on the in­ter­net. Com­pe­ti­tion in this seg­ment is per­mit­ted, though in re­cent years it ar­guably has not been en­cour­aged. In 2007, the stew­ard over­saw a trans­for­ma­tion in the mar­ket. At long last, the dial-up con­nec­tion (com­plete with screech­ing modem) was re­placed with a dig­i­tal sub­scriber line (DSL) ser­vice. The fu­ture. Le­banon was a last adopter of this tech­nol­ogy. Lo­cal roll­out was slow, and down­load speeds are, a decade later, still abysmal.

To make a long and tech­ni­cal story short, the MoT and Ogero, a sta­te­owned en­ter­prise work­ing as a min­istry con­trac­tor, have con­sid­er­able power over the in­ter­net mar­ket. With con­trol of most of the in­fras­truc­ture that al­lows some­one in Le­banon to check their email, com­pe­ti­tion in the mar­ket can be eas­ily hob­bled. Pri­vate com­pa­nies are al­lowed to use some of their own equip­ment to serve cus­tomers, but Ogero is in charge of the links that move cus­tomer traf­fic from one piece of equip­ment to another, be­fore ac­tu­ally moving that traf­fic on to the in­for­ma­tion su­per­high­way (via ca­bles Ogero man­ages all ac­cess to). In other words, Ogero is the one clos­ing lanes on ac­cess roads and open­ing only two toll­booths onto the high­way dur­ing rush hour. Ex­cept it is at all hours. Ev­ery day. When­ever an un­happy cus­tomer – or a cu­ri­ous re­porter – would ask a pri­vate provider why the in­ter­net was so bad, there was al­ways one an­swer, how­ever diplo­mat­i­cally de­liv­ered: Ogero, specif­i­cally in the per­son of its for­mer direc­tor gen­eral. This has been true for 10 full years. It al­most seemed like a con­ve­nient ex­cuse (“Ab­del Moneim Youssef ate my home­work”) un­til the in­ter­net mag­i­cally got bet­ter. Much bet­ter. Just like that.

down the road at the ear­li­est (see O&G over­view page 12).

For now, if the gov­ern­ment’s plan is to use gas to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity, then Le­banon will have to im­port that gas. In 2009, the Lebanese gov­ern­ment inked a deal to im­port gas from Egypt via Syria us­ing the Arab Gas Pipe­line (AGP). Me­dia re­ports point to dozens of at­tacks dam­ag­ing sec­tions of the pipe­line in the Si­nai Penin­sula since 2011, ham­per­ing gas sup­plies to Jor­dan and Is­rael, and it is not clear whether the sec­tions of the pipe snaking through war-torn Syria are func­tional. Even if the AGP was fully op­er­a­tional, the prob­lem has been that there was never enough gas to sup­ply Le­banon. Egypt is cur­rently a net im­porter of gas to meet its own con­sump­tion needs. Its 2015 dis­cov­ery of the Zohr gas field off­shore might change that, but the first gas is ex­pected from Zohr in 2018, and it is not clear where that gas will be al­lo­cated, do­mes­ti­cally in Egypt or for ex­port (see re­gional O&G story, page 16).

In any case, the AGP only con­nects Le­banon in the north, at Trip- oli. Le­banon would have to im­port Liqui­fied Nat­u­ral Gas (LNG) from a sup­plier abroad to feed the coun­try’s other power plants, and it would need to build a pipe­line to con­nect them. The plan calls for a pipe­line that would ex­tend from So­lata, the pro­posed 1000 MW power plant in the north, to Tyre in south Le­banon. The plan fore­casts the con­struc­tion of the pipe­line at just un­der $200 mil­lion, but does not ac­knowl­edge that much of its pro­posed path­way cuts through ur­ban ar­eas. The gov­ern­ment would have to clear land, in­clud­ing part of the Pales­tinian refugee camp Ain al-Hil­weh, to con­struct the pro­posed pipe­line, and its pro­posal does not men­tion the costs of do­ing so.

The plan sug­gests the al­ter­na­tive of con­tract­ing three float­ing stor­age re­gasi­fi­ca­tion units (FSRUs) to im­port the needed gas. A FSRU takes LNG and con­verts the liq­uid gas back into its gaseous form for power plants to burn and gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity. FSRUs come in dif­fer­ent ca­pac­i­ties, but three FSRUs would be un­nec­es­sary if Le­banon’s power plants were con­nected by pipe­line. If the gov­ern­ment does end up with plans to ten­der three FSRUs, then it is tac­itly ac­knowl­edg­ing that a coastal pipe­line con­nect­ing Le­banon’s power plants is not pos­si­ble.

The MoEW did not want to dis- cuss the pro­posed elec­tric­ity plan with Ex­ec­u­tive and has kept its pub­lic com­ments on the plan to a min­i­mum. One of the min­istry of­fi­cials that Ex­ec­u­tive spoke with on con­di­tion of anonymity de­scribed many of the items in the plan as too far-fetched and po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated. In the end, the gov­ern­ment is propos­ing a plan in the same way it has op­er­ated the elec­tric­ity sec­tor, and we are all still liv­ing in the dark.

The plan fore­casts the con­struc­tion of the pipe­line at just un­der $200 mil­lion

Ogero flips a switch and lo­cal in­ter­net trans­forms

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