Unleash the speed
Ogero flips a switch and local internet transforms
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