Final bell not yet ready to toll for landline in Lebanon

Out of touch Lebanon has a lot of work to do when it comes to telecommunications, writes Michael Karam.

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Since moving back to the UK and travelling a lot more to the US, it has been hard not to notice the sad demise of the landline, decimated apparently by the overwhelming dominance of mobile technology. Apparently the last landline in the US will be disconnected in 2025, while in the UK most subscribers keep it only as part of their internet package and use it sporadically – less than 10 times a month.

I love fixed phones. Nothing, so far at least, can beat their clarity, or the feeling that your brain is not being fried by salvos of radiation. Lebanon still clings on and last week the telecoms minister and former presidential hopeful Boutros Harb, held a press conference to tell the nation that fixed phone subscriptions had increased in 2014, evidence he claimed that the sector was “rapidly improving”.

According to a study by the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union (“Committed to connecting the World”), Lebanon experienced an 11 per cent increase in the number of fixed-line subscriptions, equivalent of 8,000 new connections a month.

Other figures were equally impressive. Broadband internet subscribers apparently increased by 134 per cent; DSL subscribers increased by 45 per cent and mobile broadband subscribers increased by 31.8 per cent. The number of Lebanese using the internet went up by 21.4 per cent, while the number of mobile users reached 4,387,275, a figure that has surely been boosted by the nearly 2 million Syrians who have arrived in the country since 2011.

That there is life in the landline is no surprise. I would wager that the vast majority of these 8,000 new subscribers can be found living in the hundreds of new apartment blocks that were completed in 2014 and the trend is likely to continue over the next 12 months.

But this by itself does not explain our love affair with the landline at a time when most people are getting rid of them. It’s simply that the country’s mobile phone tariffs are so extortionate that the “landline” is still very much an affordable alternative means of communication. Or to put it another way, we only use the mobile when we have to.

So usage may be on the increase, but the Lebanese are also being seriously ripped off. I have just come back from six weeks in Beirut, where I spent about $230 on internet services compared to $60 spent in the UK each month. And what’s more, Lebanon has one of the slowest upload and download speeds in the world, ranking 152nd out of 182 countries surveyed. Ditto my Lebanese mobile bill for August, which came to around $250, compared to the $32 I spend in the UK per month.

All this is hardly breaking news. High mobile tariffs are one of the recurring themes whenever the cost of doing business in Lebanon is discussed. The government still has to wake up to the fact that setting the high tariffs and retaining two network operators, Zain Telecom and Orascom Telecom, Media and Technology (OTMT), is not the way forward even if mobile revenues do generate more than 15 per cent of annual government revenue.

To maintain this system is to never allow the full potential of the mobile device to affect the Lebanese economy. By cutting the apron ties and allowing the operators to compete and perhaps allowing a third into the market, rates will surely come down and stimulate growth in the long term, not just in the cities, but also in rural communities. In Africa, Zain Telecom, then MTC, proved that the mobile phone could transform the economic landscape in a way not seen since the invention of the wheel.

Mr Harb, who at the press conference, followed up each statistic with bold superlatives, assuring us that the ITU’s figures rank the country “in first place worldwide when it comes to yearly growth” in this area, really wasn’t painting the whole picture. Bottom line, Lebanese consumers deserve fairer rates and a better service. Who knows? Then they might even ditch their beloved landline.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.

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