Internet setbacks risk isolating Lebanon in crisis


This 2019 protest in Beirut, Lebanon, began with tax proposals, specifically an unexpected government plan to impose fees on WhatsApp users. Two years later, the country risks losing its Internet connection. File photo by Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 14 (UPI) — In October 2019, a government decision to impose a tax on WhatsApp users sparked unprecedented mass popular protests in Lebanon that turned into demands to oust corrupt and incompetent political leaders.

More than two years later, the rulers are still in power and the entire communications sector is on the brink of collapse.

The danger of Lebanon losing its internet connection and being isolated from the outside world has catastrophic implications for the economy, society and security.

The worsening economic and financial crisis, severe power outages, lack of funds and scarcity of foreign currency have significantly affected the country’s internet service, once the best in the region.

Internet services began to deteriorate with the country’s electricity crisis last summer, when the government decided to cut fuel subsidies and the central bank was no longer able to provide foreign currency. strong for these imports. The country was nearly plunged into total darkness with severe power cuts reaching 22 hours a day.

Power outages continue with no solution in sight.

Ogero Telecom, Lebanon’s public telecommunications company and sole internet provider, began experiencing similar outages in June, unable to source enough diesel fuel to power its stations. The result was unreliable, slow or lost internet connection and prolonged outages, lasting hours or sometimes days in remote areas.

“The main problem facing the communications sector today started with the problem of electricity, but the whole economic situation evolves from crisis to crisis,” Imad Kreidieh, president and director, told UPI. General d’Ogero. “The risks are increasing day by day…reaching a stage of total disconnection is a very dangerous thing.”

bills to pay

One of the main concerns is to cover the dues of the international providers who supply the Internet to Lebanon and keep it online.

“We have bills to pay for international suppliers, some $6 million a year,” Kreidieh said.

With dwindling foreign exchange reserves, a shortage of US dollars and no approved budget yet, it is unclear how cash-strapped Lebanon will cover these dues.

“The internet connects the whole country and the risk of disconnection affects all sectors: security services, the airport, banks, the central bank, medical and educational institutions and the judicial system,” Kreidieh said. “It’s crazy to get to the point where the telecommunications industry – and therefore the internet – stops working.”

Kreidieh said the company needs $100 million a year to maintain operations. “It’s not a lot compared to the services we provide,” he said.

He warned of deteriorating conditions in his area since June and “knocked on every door” for international help, “but no one is willing to help”.

Ogero’s revenue was on the rise before the country’s worst financial crisis hit in 2019, earning $450 million a year since 2017, with a profit margin of 70%, Kreidieh said. In 2021, revenue fell to $34 million due to the collapse of the Lebanese pound, which lost more than 90% of its value in two years.

The pound fell from LL1,500 against the US dollar in 2019 to a record high of LL33,000 earlier this week.

Ogero, which provides Internet to 1.2 million homes and a large number of institutions, still collects subscriptions in Lebanese pounds at the rate of 1,500 LL.

Kreidieh said Ogero’s 303 stations are still operating 24 hours a day and any internet outages or connectivity issues are being resolved.

“It’s not yet a big crisis. Those affected by internet outages in a day do not exceed 3 or 4% for an average of 3 hours…that in itself is a miracle “, did he declare.

However, he fears it will come to a point where spare parts, to be bought in dollars abroad, will be needed.

“I can’t afford to be offline”

When the crisis hit last summer, many businesses and institutions turned to private internet companies for alternatives. Losing the internet connection means big losses and would probably push them out of business or out of the country.

“They panicked and came asking for options, including very expensive satellite internet access that could barely meet their needs,” said Gabriel Moubarak, group sales manager at GlobalCom. “These are businesses, with businesses in the United States and Europe, that cannot afford to be offline.”

Mubarak warned against the exodus of companies, noting that a number of them have closed their activities in Lebanon and relocated to Cyprus, Dubai, Egypt and Jordan, which are “safer and secure”.

“Any kind of business depends on the internet, but also on the military, security services, government, banking system, insurance companies, medical sector and airport,” he said. he told UPI. “Everyone will be affected.

Even those working online from home with companies overseas and earning “new US dollars” are at risk.

A journalist had to travel to Dubai for 20 days to be able to work with a good internet connection.

No internet also means people couldn’t go online, monitor their children or seek help in a country with frequent security incidents.

Corruption, political interference and bad decisions have helped bring down a once profitable communications sector, said telecommunications and information technology consultant Amer Tabsh.

“This sector can bring billions of dollars to the treasury,” Tabsh said. “Political interference is part of the problem… When they [the state] decided to run this business after it passed into the hands of international companies, we have reached the point where we cannot even get diesel fuel to run it. »

While Kreidieh does not expect a total disconnection from the internet, as “no one will take the risk of triggering the total collapse of the national economy”, Tabsh warned that “everything that is happening now should reach this period… It will collapse unless a miracle happens.”

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