Slow poke: Will Lebanon ever have fast internet?
Slow, expensive internet in Lebanon has hampered business growth. Reforms are supposed to be on the way but residents are concerned over how fast the new system will roll out.
October 9, 2011 11:00 by p.deleon
For Sara Darwiche, it has been more than problematic running her fast-paced internet company out of Lebanon, a country with internet access that is among the worst in the world.
The “invite only” website ChouChic.com gives its members the opportunity to buy surplus stocks of fashionable clothes at discounted prices. It works on the idea that the scarcity of the clothes coupled with the time limit on sales — 48 hours to a week — will nurture impulse buying and push up sales. The strategy is called flash selling.
But for ChouChic’s main customers, who are Lebanese, there is nothing flashy about buying online here.
“Sometimes the website cuts and people think the sale is over. It really affects the quality,” she told Reuters. “We open our sales everyday at noon and for some reason the internet usually cuts out then for five minutes.”
For a company aiming to sell the majority of stock in the first ten minutes of a sale opening, connectivity issues can be devastating.
“We needed a lot of modifications to compensate for the slow internet,” she said, adding that the website was now hosted in the US. “For luxury fashion, it needs to look like the goods are in front of you so the resolution of the photos needs to be high. But we had to lower the resolution as upload speeds were too slow.”
Lebanon is regarded as a fortress of Arab entrepreneurship, with a vibrant services sector and a business community that is famed for its unyielding tenacity even during the depths of war. But sluggish and expensive internet has been an embarrassing blot on the economy, and internet-based companies such as ChouChic are rare.
On Saturday, the Ministry of Telecommunications introduced a new, high-speed and cheaper internet plan for private internet Service Providers (ISP) to sell on to customers. The plan aims to reduce end-user prices for digital subscriber lines (DSL) by 80 percent, while raising speeds up to eight times.
If it is implemented smoothly, the plan will provide relief to hundreds of thousands of Lebanese internet users and could boost economic growth. But for years to come, the economy may bear the scars of the political bickering, vested financial interests and negligence that kept Lebanon in the slow lanes of the information superhighway.
“While other countries in the region have capitalised on (the internet), we have missed it,” said Nassib Ghobril, chief economist of the Byblos Bank Group.
“They have moved ahead of us and now have a comparative advantage. A lot of companies that rely on the internet look elsewhere to base themselves.”
Ookla, a company that tests internet speeds around the world, has often ranked Lebanon last on its global Net Index, and the country has generally been lower down than many less developed nations such as Afghanistan and Burkina Faso.
“Lebanon is a services economy and society. Not having internet is like not having foreign languages,” Khaldoun Farhat, CEO of private ISP provider Terranet, said at his offices opposite Beirut’s port.
Farhat has repeatedly tried to bypass what he calls a “narrow view” of the internet by the Ministry of Telecommunications. He bought internet capacity from satellites, made failed requests to buy…
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