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French Version

IT show reveals flaws behind the glitz (Daily Star)

Lebanon's hi-tech sector is growing, but problems abound

Lebanon's hi-tech industry has grown much faster than the global average over the last two years, but the somber mood among local software developers and entrepreneurs at the 11th annual Termium ICT trade show was anything but optimistic.

Despite the glitzy stands and the cascade of scantily clad promoter girls, investors voiced many of the same complaints heard at Termium 2003 - that is, serious concern over Lebanon's lack of high-speed internet connections, astronomical connection fees and the government's apparent inability or unwillingness to fight epidemic levels of copyright infringement and develop a national ICT strategy.

This year's show, which closed Sunday, was also marked by diminished participation from the world's leading IT firms, such as Microsoft, which halved its Termium budget to $40,000 this year.

"Many announcements were made a bit late and I couldn't bring speakers in at the last minute," said Leila Serhan, marketing manager for Microsoft Eastern Mediterranean, which is based in Beirut.

"The politics of the last six months have had an impact on the sector," she said, maintaining, however that Microsoft's unpublished Lebanon budget was up 15 percent over last year.

Other industry players were less diplomatic: "The government is not helping this industry in any way shape or form," said Raja Rayshouny, operations manager for Comtek, the local distributor for Samsung, which also assembles PCs locally through a separate firm.

"This government has been talking about ADSL for a year-and-a-half now, and so far they have done nothing," he said. "I think all that they like to do is talk ... promises after promises but no delivery."

"It's a pity that Lebanon has the best brains in the Arab world but the slowest connection speed," said Tamer Ziade, founder and general manager of Oro Planet, a new locally developed portal that claims 32,000 members.

Ziade said the multi-content site will be offering an array of international contests to its online communities, which he says will be rewarded by a thousand prizes, including new luxury vehicles. But all hosting for Oro Planet will be based in the U.S., "because it's faster, easier and more convenient."

Still, the Lebanese software industry grew by over 22 percent in the last two years, with a quarter of firms gaining over 75 percent of revenues from exports, according to a study by SRI international released this May.

But Lebanese firms are getting little attention from their own government, said Joe Hatem, the general manager of local software developer Profiles, whose client list stretches from Russia to Central Africa.

"We are just getting peanuts at the end of the meal," he said, claiming locals are merely being offered sub-contracting work from foreign firms on public tenders.

Jalal Fawaz, head of the Professional Computer Organization - one of Termium's organizers - acknowledged that the government was spending less on IT this year.

"The activity of a trade show reflects the activity of a country," he said.

But complaints over the lack of participation from global industry leaders were unfounded, he argued, suggesting many local firms "lack the skills to make use of a trade show." He touted the presence of Iraqi and Syrian delegations and lauded "greater government participation," in a series of conferences that were held jointly with the exhibition.

Yet Hatem said the most pressing concerns for his firm - and the industry - are the "unacceptably high" cost of communicating and the seemingly hopeless outlook for reforms.

"If we are unable to know ahead of time when the electricity will be cut, how can we expect to know when broadband will be offered?"

Beirut 04-10-2004
Habib Battah
The Daily Star

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