|State can't stop illegal ISPs - but DSL might
|As many as one-third of Lebanon's approximately 300,000 residential Internet customers connect to the Web illegally, according to estimates from legal and illegal Internet service providers (ISPs).
The Telecommunications Ministry takes steps to fight piracy, but the easiest way to eliminate the Internet black market might be for the ministry to purchase more bandwidth abroad and make it available here, experts told The Daily Star this week.
High-speed DSL Internet service, scheduled to hit the market next March, could put the pirates out of business, or all sides could agree to allow pirate providers to enter the DSL business legitimately, experts said.
Estimates of the number of illegal residential connections vary, but Carole Hage, sales manager at Terranet, said a figure of about 100,000 was the industry's best guess. Pirate providers usually purchase their bandwidth legally - using a satellite to buy download bandwidth from abroad - but violate the law when they distribute the Internet by cable into people's homes.
Licensed ISPs said pirates had the advantage of being able to offer Internet access 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no dial-up and no cap on downloads.
"Cable is the best," said an illegal provider from Kaslik.
Patrick Farajian, chairman and CEO of ISP Sodetel, said he was losing business to pirate ISPs because he faces higher costs for doing business legally, such as fulfilling public-information requirements and paying income taxes.
"We are at a competitive disadvantage," he said. "It's a very big issue."
The ministry is fighting the problem by reducing telephone costs for dial-up users and preparing the DSL rollout, Farajian told The Daily Star. In September, the ministry lowered monthly fees for connecting to the Internet. Users now pay LL750 ($.50 ) per hour if they connect for one hour to 15 hours per month, or LL500 per hour if they connect for 16 hours to 300 hours. Users had paid a flat fee of LL19,000 for connecting one hour to 25 hours per month or LL38,000 for 26 hours to 55 hours per month, he said.
Lower prices - which should accompany the DSL rollout - make using an illegal connection less attractive for users, he said.
"The incentive for what they are doing will decline ... The best way to fight is policy."
Until now, however, the ministry has tried but failed to reduce the number of pirates, said Terranet's Hage.
"The ministry is trying hard, [but] it has not done its job," she said. The ministry did not respond to several interview requests from The Daily Star.
ISPs want the ministry to make more bandwidth available, Hage said. More bandwidth could also push prices down for end-users and cut into the pirates' business.
"Why should we fight them if we don't have enough bandwidth?" she asked. "All ISPs have this problem. The answer to all this is more bandwidth."
Hage said she does not know why the ministry is not buying more bandwidth abroad.
High-speed DSL service would make much more bandwidth available to Lebanese Internet users - and it also could kill the pirates' business, legal and illegal ISPs agreed.
"I will lose all my customers to Cyberia or Terranet," said an illegal provider from Beirut.
Still, two pirate providers told The Daily Star they want to do business legitimately, if only the ministry would make bandwidth available to them and let them compete in the market.
Hage said she is willing to work with today's pirates, and expressed admiration for the number of users the pirates had connected to the Internet, adding: "I don't blame these people ... They saw an opportunity and they took advantage of it."
The Daily Star