24-Carat 4G: In crisis-hit Lebanon, mobile phones and broadband are now only for the rich
In his Richka cell phone store in Beirut's Geitawi neighbourhood, Radji Kamal, a 36-year-old phone salesman, answers his worried customers one by one about the telecom price hike in Lebanon.
"If a part of the population will still be able to afford the new price hike, another part will not be able to access telecom services at all," Radji tells The New Arab.
"People will have to rely on financial funds from their families living abroad to be able to afford a telecom or internet subscription."
In a press conference, former telecommunications minister Johnny Corm announced an increase in the price of telecommunication services approved on May 20 by the Council of Ministers.
The new tariffs for the two Lebanese telecom operators, Alfa and Touch, which took effect on July 1, include a threefold reduction in all current dollar prices and conversion not to the official Lebanese pound rate of 1.500, but to the fluctuating Sayrafa rate, which was 23.900 LL at the time of the decision.
As an example, Kamal took the price of a pre-paid card that today costs about 40,000 Lebanese pounds, and that should cost 180,000LL (about $50 at the official rate), a fivefold increase that represents a considerable financial burden for many Lebanese.
A part of the population still receives an official salary of 675.000LL representing $25 on the black market rate and cannot afford such an increase in the price of telecommunications. For the family of Michel Gergi, 18, in his last year of high school at the Collège des Sœurs des Saints-Coeurs Bauchrieh, access to telecommunication services is very uncertain.
“Personally, I don't work, so it's my parents who pay for the telecommunication services and we have to recharge my phone card several times a month to have internet. But this is becoming more and more difficult. My parents are already struggling with the economic crisis and can barely afford the 4G I need, so what will happen when the prices go up? I won't be able to get internet in the coming months,” Michel said.
"I'm worried about my college education when the school year starts next year. If I go to the Lebanese University, most of the courses are online, and if I don't have internet, I won't be able to attend them"
“I'm worried about my college education when the school year starts next year. If I go to the Lebanese University, most of the courses are online, and if I don't have internet, I won't be able to attend them,” he added.
The increase in telecom prices is also accompanied by a plan to dismantle the 2G network and at least 80% of the 3G network, in favour of the 4G network.
While the country is already facing a telecom network with many outages, this decision is likely to overload it even more than it already is.
“Although we paid a yearly subscription for internet, the company told us that they had many problems and would not be able to provide us with internet for more than four or five hours a day,” Michel added.
“That's why we paid another company to get internet, but since we brought the modem and router home, it still doesn't work most of the time,” he said.
In addition to the network overload, about 250,000 people who rely entirely on the 2G network will be forced to change their phones to accommodate the new network.
The move, which is aimed at dealing with the rising costs of maintaining the network according to the relevant authorities, is being strongly criticised by several NGOs, including Mohamad Najem, co-founder and executive director of the Beirut-based digital rights organisation SMEX.
“People will be forced to go off-grid or will have to buy a smartphone, which is an additional $100 to $150 cost and is not affordable for everyone,” Mohammad said.
Najem notes, however, that alternatives were available before the relevant authorities made these drastic decisions.
Merging the different networks could have cut the maintenance costs of running the network in half. Focusing on a single company could have been another option instead of destroying the entire 2G network. More generally, it is the corruption of the telecommunications sector that Najem denounces.
"Everything is becoming more and more expensive in the country, this is part of the economic and financial collapse of the country. The government needs money, and it is the Lebanese people who pay the price"
“The telecom revenues in Lebanon were at least one billion dollars a year and now they are cutting down the telecom services which would cost them 150,000 dollars a year. With so many profits in the sector, unfortunately, a lot of this money was spent without any transparency or accountability,” he said.
“The industry has lost money because it has been so many years since they have not invested in this sector. There are many options, but without political will, the authorities do not take into account the rights of users,” he added.
More generally, the rise in internet prices is part of the dollarisation policy that the government is implementing in public services ranging from water distribution to the availability of electricity.
“Everything is becoming more and more expensive in the country, this is part of the economic and financial collapse of the country. The government needs money, and it is the Lebanese people who pay the price,” concluded Kamal.
Clément Gibon is a freelance journalist based in Lebanon.
Follow him on Instagram: @clm_gbn