BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Lebanese voice rage over Internet outage

A man works on his computer at a cafe in Hamra, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

BEIRUT: Moussa Bshara usually teaches his students on Skype. He quickly connects with people around the world to help them learn Arabic.

But when the country’s Internet was shut down by a nationwide blackout Wednesday night and Thursday, the 27-year-old was able to teach almost none of his students. “Of course it’s hurting me. I can’t meet any of them,” Bshara said while waiting in an Ashrafieh coffee house for one of his students who lives nearby.

Lebanon’s latest Internet outage, the third in the past week, had people frustrated and angry across Beirut. Many sat at home, at coffee shops, and at Internet cafes trying to eek out a bit of bandwidth from the connection that waxed and waned and turned on and off in fits and starts.

Amena Rida, who works at an Internet shop in the neighborhood of Zarif, said the outage had many people on edge. She said she received a deluge of calls after the blackout from customers angry and upset about the slow service.

But given that the country’s Internet woes stem from a severed cable about a mile under the Mediterranean off the cost of Egypt, the problem is out of 25-year-old Rida’s hands. Other countries have suffered connection difficulties, but none have had a countrywide blackout because of the cable.

But for Rida and most others who begrudgingly live with Lebanon’s sub-standard infrastructure, Lebanon’s nationwide outage was not surprising.

“This is the condition of Lebanon, there is nothing that improves,” she said.

After years of spotty service and mostly unfulfilled promises from government officials for improvement, many people have given up hope for an improved connection.

“I’ve gotten used to it, it’s always slow,” Lara Jadah said while catching a cab in Qoreitem.

And slow is probably the best word to describe Lebanon’s Internet. The country’s connection was only recently improved to move from the basement of international speed rankings, and it experiences constant slowdowns and occasional blackouts.

When working properly the connection – and there is only one, as Lebanon is one of the few countries in the world dependent on a single external cable – still rates as one of the worst in the Middle East.

New speeds and recently launched 3-G wireless data network were much heralded when unveiled several months ago, but overall the country’s network is stunted by bottlenecks. Even when performing well, some connections can’t stream video or download large files. When hit by regional cable problems, or Wednesday’s upgrade shutdown, speeds can be mind-numbingly slow.

“I just give up on it and stop trying to make it work,” said 17-year-old Jadah, who uses the Internet to do her homework and talk with friends on Facebook.

It’s not just students who are giving up. Several recent reports have shown businesses are reluctant to set up shop in Lebanon because of its woeful infrastructure, including slow Internet.

Speaking at Starbucks in Hamra, a 52-year-old man with a regional architecture firm said Lebanon’s Internet is by far the worst of any area he operates in. Customers download his building plans in seconds in Istanbul and stream his video chats easily in Dubai, but they take hours to get up to speed when operating from Beirut.

He is fed up with the poor service and near-monopoly of Internet providers. The market is expensive and geared only toward the elite who can afford the high-end connections.

“They base their income on 15 percent of the population and don’t care about the rest,” he said.

After seeing reform efforts bungled by politicians from all parties, he is not optimistic for improvement.

“I’m not optimistic about anything, they should fix their brains first before the Internet,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 06, 2012, on page 4.

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