Fast Track

The long wait for Lebanon's public data network to go live could be over by the end of this year, allowing the country to open a new chapter in its ICT development.

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By  Richard Agnew Published  January 30, 2005

|~|airport-test-1.gif|~||~|All eyes have been on the mobile sector in Lebanon recently, and the tortuous process of re-vitalising the country’s two troubled GSM networks. But 2005 should also see the long-awaited development of high-speed internet services moving up the country’s agenda. Broadband subscriptions via DSL have yet to be made available for Lebanese users while the capacity of the country’s public switched telephony network (PSTN) remains stretched. A public data network (PDN) that would take the pressure of the PSTN and support broadband has also yet to be pushed through, despite originally being scheduled for tender in 2001. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Telecoms (MoT) says the PDN, costing an estimated US$20million, will be tendered this month and could be up and running by the end of the year. “[The PDN] is no longer a project of the mind,” says Naji Andraos, director general for equipment and construction at the MoT. “This has been talked about for two years but it will be tendered in February. We hope that it will go into action by the end of 2005,” he adds. The PDN is expected to have numerous benefits for Lebanon’s telecoms sector, if and when it is launched. One will be to allow fixed line operator, Ogero, to offload data traffic from the PSTN and give it spare capacity to lease to ISPs. The MoT claims that IP traffic generated in Lebanon has been doubling annually in the last few years. It intends the PDN to have two internet gateways, an IP/MPLS core, eight remote access servers (RAS) and 20 digital subscriber line access multiplexers (DSLAMs), to initally support data being generated from up to 3000 DSL customers. To prepare for the move, a node to connect local ISPs has already been established. 90Mbits/s of international capacity has also already been sourced, with half linking Lebanon to Europe and half to the US. “The PSTN has had limited manufacture and maintenance support,” says Andraos. “There is big pressure [on] the MoT and Ogero to migrate the network to launch internet and IP services. We have a huge demand for broadband but we have not been able to satisfy [it],” he adds. The MoT also says that the network will allow service providers to offer enhanced internet protocol (IP) services, such IP virtual private networks (VPNs) and packet telephony. But observers expect it to have an impact on elemental broadband services first, considering the sector’s current under-development. “The PDN will mainly help the MoT introduce broadband services — it still hasn’t introduced DSL,” says Sami Sunna, senior research analyst at Arab Advisors. “Lebanon was expected to be a technological leader in the region but the situation in the telecoms sector has been chaotic, because of liberalisation and privatisation being slow. Many ISPs still get their connectivity through satellite as Ogero hasn’t had enough bandwidth. Also, many wireless providers have been operating without being regulated,” he adds. The government also intends to use the move to expand and develop its PSTN this year, which reportedly covered 95% of the country and had 750,000 subscribers at the end of 2004. According to Andraos, another project will see 40,000 payphones installed across Lebanon during 2005, while ISDN connections are expected to be in place in some rural areas by the middle of the year. Alcatel, Siemens and Ericsson have also been upgrading the country’s PSTN switches — which again will be finished by mid-2005, he adds. This, the MoT hopes, will stabilise the fixed network, which has been losing customers to the country’s two mobile networks. “The PSTN network was completely rebuilt after the civil war, and most of the lines are digital, but traffic has been going down for quite a while, as people are using their mobile phones instead of fixed lines,” says Sunna. On a wider scope, the development of broadband in Lebanon also represents one of the key goals set out by the Telecoms Regulatory Authority (TRA) which is due to be up and running in Lebanon in the first half of this year. As such, the following monhts is also likely to see the broadband market being restructured. Once it is formed, the regulator is set to issue new licences to Lebanon’s existing ISPs and datacomm operators, and oversee the restructuring of Ogero and its re-branding as Liban Telecom. Looking further down the line, it has also prepared a five year plan which could potentially see the creation of three, privately-owned national infrastructure operators competing to sell services across any technology to indirect service providers and end-users. Considering the country’s track record, though, the question is whether all the reforms and investments planned for this year will come to fruition. But Androas is optimistic. “The MoT is taking a major step in its life,” he points out. “We are moving from a state monopoly into a deregulated environment. We will see the TRA created — I hope — in the first months of 2005, [and] the creation of Liban Telecom. 2005 will be the year of the deregulation of Lebanese telecoms,” he adds.||**||

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