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French Version

Telecoms insiders expect high-speed Internet to arrive - at last - in March

Consumers should expect high-speed DSL Internet service in March 2007, the director of a local Internet service provider (ISP) said on Tuesday, although details of the rollout such as the price of installation and monthly rates have yet to be settled.

The Telecommunications Ministry, the state-owned telecom firm OGERO and providers have had two meetings in the past week to push forward the oft-postponed DSL service.

The delay in offering DSL is indicative of how Lebanon, some 10 years ago the first Arab country in the Levant to offer the Internet, now lags most of the Arab world in high-speed Internet access. The foot-dragging has cost Lebanon economic growth and foreign investment, experts say.

The March deadline was set Friday at a meeting at the ministry, according to Maroun Chammas, executive director of service provider IDM.

A meeting of the DSL Commercial Committee on Tuesday focused on the price ISPs will pay OGERO for the right to provide the new service, said attendee Carole Hage, sales manager at Terranet. The ministry has final say on the price.

The ministry has to overcome two key technical hurdles in delivering the new service: upgrading telephone switchboards in areas where DSL will be available and improving international phone lines to handle 1.5 gigabytes per second of data transfer.

Chammas told The Daily Star he was "99 percent" sure the March deadline will be met.

"It really looks much better than before," he said, referring to earlier delays.

ISPs are pushing the ministry to set prices because they expect keen interest in DSL and will be able to offer new products, Chammas said.

"Once DSL is available, people are going to get much better service," Chammas said.

Sam Masri, an employee in the corporate sales division of the ISP Fiberlink, said he expected prices to go down for users. The major ISPs in Lebanon offer broadband service for a $75 installation fee and $45 per month for a 128 kilobyte-per-second (kbps) connection, $100 for 256 kbps and $175 for 512 kbps.

The ministry has floated a initial proposal for DSL user fees.

Under the proposed prices, DSL set-up would cost LL55,000 (about $37), while 128-kbps service would cost LL35,000 for home users and LL45,000 for businesses; 256 kbps would cost LL50,000 for homes, LL65,000 for businesses; and 512 kbps LL70,000 for home users and LL85,000 for businesses. Monthly downloads would be capped.

Problems with the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority could also affect the DSL rollout. The board governing the authority remains incomplete after President Emile Lahoud objected to certain nominees, whose names were subsequently withdrawn by Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamdeh.

Because of the conflict regarding pricing structures, the ISPs need the regulatory body to set and enforce prices, Hage said.

"Without the proper regulatory authority, the services that we intend to provide are just frozen," Chammas said.

DSL also raises the issue of Internet telephony. Voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP) remains banned in Lebanon, where telecommunications revenues account for 38 percent of the state budget.

DSL will allow bandwidth to improve enough to enable VoIP, although Hage said she thinks the government will maintain the ban on VoIP.

The budget dangers raised by VoIP have resonated throughout the region. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has recently banned Skype, the Swedish Internet telephony service that allows free calls between Internet users.

The lack of high-speed Internet in Lebanon has deterred foreign investors from setting up offices here, Chammas said.

"If they don't have access to large pipes and large bandwidth, big companies will not locate here," he said.

Hage said that multinationals were "surprised" by the weak and expensive IT infrastructure, which hurt Lebanon's image abroad.

Beirut 08-11-2006
The Daily Star

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