|US firms tout Web as cure for Lebanese economy
|Private fund provides access in five communities
The American private sector fund established after the war to stimulate Lebanon's economic recovery encouraged the government to accelerate the deployment of broadband Internet access on Wednesday, after completing online connectivity pilot programs in five Lebanese communities.
After distributing $1 million for immediate crisis relief, the fund focused on increasing Internet access in Burj al-Barajneh, Nabatiyeh, Beirut, Baalbek, and Bint Jbeil through a series of small-scale pilot programs in schools, hospitals, and community centers.
Collectively the early initiatives were designed to demonstrate how the country's economy can take off around a broadband infrastructure - which allows increased access to low-cost Internet - by boosting Lebanon's GDP and the quality of available education and healthcare, attracting foreign direct investment, and allowing the country to become even more of a service hub.
The five companies involved in the Fund - Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, Ghafari Inc. and Occidental Petroleum Corp. - hope these efforts will allow jobs, companies, and goods and services based on a broadband infrastructure to be created.
"We believe that broadband can enable dramatic change in a country. So we will use Lebanon as a litmus test of how this can actually happen," said Marc de Simone, Cisco's vice president for the Middle East and Africa, of why Cisco participated in the effort.
"In doing this of course we will sell some equipment, some services and applications, but more importantly we can give a snapshot of what happens in a country on day 0, year one of broadband, and year three. This will help other countries."
Cisco donated the equipment for an international gateway for the country.
The company has pledged $20 million to the fund, half of which has been earmarked as "venture funds" to provide seed money to a group of yet-to-be-determined local companies and to support the creation of local intellectual property, and the remainder allocated to particular programs.
The fund donated 25 of Intel's "$100 Laptops" - which Intel chief Craig Barrett admitted in the interests of "truth in advertising" actually run about $200 - to eighth graders at a Nabatieh school. Four of the recipients attended Wednesday's event with their teachers, who said they would ask the Ministry of Education for funds to purchase more laptops.
The benefits of increased access in Lebanon - where Internet penetration is between 18 and 20 percent - cannot be felt without adopting technology to accommodate new users, said Barrett, and "in the end bandwidth is a government issue."
"Obviously five communities in Lebanon don't make up the entire country, but these are poster children of what can actually happen with affordable Internet access," Barrett said at a ceremony at the Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel in Beirut on Wednesday.
"The growth and sustainability of these projects depends very much on the government's priorities, so the best thing we can do is lobby the government to accelerate broadband based on what we have learned from our work in other countries."
There need to be several conditions in place before the broadband infrastructure can be installed. The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority must identify possible models for competition, and the fund is helping them by letting them know what has and has not worked in countries around the world.
"I'm not comparing Lebanon to some country in Africa with human resources problems," de Simone said of the status of Lebanon's IT sector.
"There are no competency issues in Lebanon, the problems are related to infrastructure. We are trying to address the gap between Lebanon's potential considering the quality of human resources in Lebanon and the modernity of the banking and tourism infrastructure, and what actually exists in terms of broadband."
The Daily Star