Since 2014, Telecommunications in Lebanon has seen vast improvements in mobile coverage as well as internet speed and market penetration. However, network technology is constantly evolving and must react quickly to the changes in consumer behavior and demand.
Although countries have been quick to jump on the 5G bandwagon, deployment of the new technology requires a strong investment strategy to enhance and modify network infrastructure for faster more efficient services.
With many anticipating 5G as the new standard in cellular networks, countries like Lebanon are asking whether 5G fast-track aspirations are even possible, given the challenges caused by political instability and a slowed economy.
Inside Telecom met with Chairman of Ogero, Imad Kreidieh to find out more.
What are Ogero’s plans for future deployment of 5G in Lebanon? Do you have the capabilities to achieve this?
For now, Ogero does not have plans to deploy 5G in Lebanon, because it is a wireless technology and we are currently using 4G to deliver telecommunication services to end-users. Deployment of 5G is also now less likely because we are passing through an economic crisis in the country.
However, we have the capabilities to achieve it, as we have already demonstrated 5G in Rafic Hariri International airport and it has proven successful. The legal framework for Ogero to deploy a fully-fledged wireless network is not yet in place, however, it should be part of the telecom law 431 that is under review by all political parties. Once approved, we will start considering such opportunities.
Beirut airport was the first in the ME to launch 5G for travelers, what are the benefits of such an unprecedented move?
It was done to offer people the chance to experience 5G as a broadband service.
It has been conclusive because travelers and people working at the airport felt the difference in terms of speed, latency and responsiveness of the technology. It was a good example of what we can do and what is possible in terms of 5G in Lebanon.
How will 5G change the wireline architecture that currently supports 4G mobile backhaul?
The endgame for Lebanon and Ogero regarding broadband services is the wireline, namely the fiber optic. We have seen that in some areas, the cost barrier is so high to deploy cable because there is a very low density of subscribers.
Therefore, we have opted for the “fixed wireless”, i.e., setting up LTE-A 4G wireless cells, providing service to users mainly in rural areas.
5G would make sense as a fixed wireless only if the economic feasibility is there, so we need to compute cost versus the return on the deployment of this network.
Fifth generation technology would have a faster return on investment in high dense and urban areas where Ogero does not have a license to operate.
Has the fiber optic plan been implemented? As we have noticed the extension of the fiber network.
Fiber optics went through different phases: first was to connect the exchanges of the Ministry of Telecommunication altogether with the fiber optic with no impact on the end user.
As for phase 2, we initiated a project in November 2018 to deploy fiber optic to the user with three companies all over Lebanon.
Today, we are almost ready to connect 92,000 subscribers to newly deployed fiber optic network.
What are the numbers of fixed line connections and how much have they decreased with the emergence of messaging apps? What about the internet connections?
The number of fixed line connections in the country is around 870,000, decreasing by 14% with the emergence of messaging apps. We are following the international trend; Lebanon is no exception to other fixed line operators worldwide, as everybody is noticing a slowdown in the subscribers because WIFI is in every house.
Regarding the internet connections, the legally claimed number of internet subscribers that Ogero and other internet service providers has data of, is 470,000. However, this number does not give us a clear indication of the internet penetration at home, because there are a very large number of subscribers that are being served with illegal distribution.
What is your vision for a competitive, digital customer experience? Do you have a strategy in place?
Since I took office here, we established a road map including paving the way for a digital society. When you talk about a digital society or economy, you need to have a reliable and sustainable infrastructure.
We have been preparing the infrastructure for the past 3 years, to push the other stakeholders to embrace digitization, because without it, nothing can be done.
We often hear the term ‘the digital divide’ which defines the gap between those who are connected and those who are not? What is the current reality in Lebanon? And what more must be done to close this gap?
If you take the mobile penetration number, which is high, and if we combine the legal distributed broadband over wire, plus the illegal distribution, the gap is minimal.
We should be in the first category of countries where the internet penetration is impressive, as everybody has access. Simply using the instant messaging app “WhatsApp” means that you are connected and acquainted with the digital environment.
Instead of using the term bridging the gap between the connected and unconnected, we need to increase people’s awareness of the culture of digital environment, which the Covid-19 crisis did. The lockdown period promoted the idea of working and taking courses online, utilizing tools like Microsoft teams and Zoom, which are new experiences.
Moreover, people should know they have alternative ways to do their daily things by going digital. In parallel with changing the culture of people and asking them to rely on those platforms that are available but not sufficiently used in the community.
How will cloud services help facilitate government entities in Lebanon?
It is a dream to reach such a level. Ogero owns two cloud platforms and we are waiting for the pricing decree in order to start offering cloud computing to small-medium enterprises and government entities, as well as working on a trial basis with the Ministry of Administrative Development (OMSAR).
Once the pricing guidelines are made official, we will start marketing the availability of cloud. We are also counting on a rise in demand so that we can enhance our strategy in this regard and expand the platform to make it available to everyone.
You have been working extensively on providing faster internet speeds in areas around Lebanon. Tell us about your most recent project?
Whenever you talk about the speed of internet, there are two approaches: internet quality is not good everywhere but it is not very bad everywhere also.
For example, in Bet Misk where the community is completely fiberized, people can reach a speed of 1Gbps. In areas like Ras Beirut, Hamra, Ashrafieh, Hazmieh people are getting ready for 200 Mbps internet connectivity; which is fast.
In some areas where we started deploying VDSL, people who are close to the exchanges by a radius of 500 meters are getting a 45 Mbps speed, which is a very acceptable speed.
We will only witness a drastic improvement on a national level in speed, once our entire infrastructure is fully deployed.
The objective of Ogero telecommunication is to make significant developments, especially after starting in 2017. The speed has so far, multiplied (nationally) seven fold. Today, we are at 9 Mbps per user, with a target of 50 Mbps.
Will we see more progress regarding broadband speeds?
We will witness continuous progress in speed as long as we are still deploying and executing the fiber to homes, buildings and public spaces.
How important is it for Lebanon to drive the digital economy and are we doing enough to support innovation and entrepreneurship?
The private sector is self-driven, and as soon as you provide it with the appropriate infrastructure, the sector will buy in and start using and maximizing digitization. Having a public cloud is very important.
What is really hindering the process of the digital transformation is the lack of decisions being made at government/national/administration level to embrace a digital economy. If the government does not embrace automation first, then the digitization of its activities will become a burden for the next phase of Lebanon’s digital strategy.