Is The iPhone Really Getting 4G From Alfa?

A couple of weeks ago, when Apple released its 7.1 update for iOS, it also brought with it an update that enabled Lebanese iPhones to access the country’s newly launched 4G network.

I brought the fact that the iPhone wouldn’t work on the country’s 4G network way back when it launched last year due to Apple’s approval of the network being a requirement. Our carriers then scrambled to work with Apple for that purpose. Now, more than a year later, the iPhone will be launched officially by our carriers here and Lebanon is on the list of countries that can get iOS features that were unavailable to us before, such as iCloud Keychain.

However, there is a discrepancy in the rollout of the service between Lebanon’s two carriers that I believe has to be outlined for transparency’s sake and it is the following.

If you own an iPhone 5S on Touch’s network you’ll notice the following switch to enable or disable LTE.

iPhone 5S LTE Touch MTC Lebanon

If you own an iPhone on Alfa’s network you’ll notice the following button to enable or disable 4G.
Alfa iPhone 5 5G Lebanon

Both buttons are not exactly the same because in Apple’s standards, 4G is not exactly LTE. How so? Well, back in 2011 when the iPhone 4S was released, the 4G toggle was enabled for that phone fully knowing that it is not actually a 4G device. The move was criticized by many for being false-advertising. But the iPhone 4S in the United States, on AT&T’s network, clearly showed connectivity to a 4G network which wasn’t an actual 4G network, just a faster version of 3G, which was supported by the iPhone 4S at the time with speeds that can go up to 42Mbps.

iPhone 4S 4G AT&T

Are Lebanese customers also the victim of false advertising?

I doubt a company like Apple would give preferential treatment to a Lebanese network and give it a special “enable 4G” button when that same toggle has been “enable LTE” for every single other carrier around the world, including Lebanon’s other network.

To support the argument is a collection of speedtest results that show a discrepancy between the speed of the service offered by MTC and that of Alfa.

This might as well be considered as unimportant given everything the country is going through. Varying speeds of fast internet are not a priority. But the question still begets itself: why is there such a discrepancy between the country’s two carriers if they are supposedly offering the same service?

All in all, my experience with 4G so far has been subpar but those speeds, regardless of whether they’re actually 4G or not, are desperately needed for DSL. Someone out there take note and make it happen.

The Lebanese Government Doesn’t Want You To Get iPhones

iPhone 5C and 5S

It wasn’t enough for Lebanon’s iPhone users had to deal with the device not being officially released by Apple in the country yet with exorbitant prices and no customer service for their device. Starting in June, regulations have made getting their device into the country harder than ever.

The iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C were released recently around the world to massive customer reception. Their prices in Lebanon, however, are about $1100 for the 16GB version of the iPhone 5S and $720 for the 16GB version of the 5C. To compare, the 16GB version of the iPhone 5S in the United States is $649 whilst the same version of the 5C retails at $549.

Many Lebanese, like yours truly, refuse to succumb to these black market prices and a government which couldn’t give a rat’s ass as long as it’s making enough money for the people running it to remain afloat but still convince everyone that their beloved regulations are in our best interest. Therefore, we buy our devices from abroad and wait for someone to bring them into the country.

Prior to June 2013, that process was as simple as it gets. The phone would come in, we’d unbox it, put it our simcards and we’d be up in running in no time. Today, getting the phone into a state of functionality means getting it registered by a procedure that is retarded but still somehow makes sense for those in governance. Why so? Because they want to take back the millions lost through phone smugglings. How so? By screwing every Lebanese over in the process both bureaucratically and financially.

According to Twitter user Wissam Chidiak, @Fletchergull, the iPhones 5S and 5C don’t get the same treatment that other phones in the market do. Their price tag wasn’t enough, so our government is making it even harder to get an iPhone in Lebanon.

Say you got an iPhone 5S from the United States and wanted to bring it into Lebanon, your passport must not have any other phone registered to it in the past 6 months in order to get the phone working on Lebanese networks. The iPhone 5S or 5C, in order to be registered, take up all 3 phone spots that you are allowed on your passport for a 6 months duration. You won’t be allowed to bring in any other phone to the country if you’ve traveled within that timezone.

Furthermore, the passport being used to get the phone up and running on Lebanese networks must not have entered the country prior to September 24th. The iPhone 5S and 5C were launched on September 20th. Technically, a Lebanese could have had them in the country by the 21st. He wouldn’t have been able to get them registered, however, because that’s what our telecom ministry wants.

Mr. Chidiac has contacted both alfa and Touch, Lebanon’s only telecom operators, who confirmed on separate occasions that the aforementioned regulations are, indeed, true. They were adamant, however, that those regulations are not operator-based and are entirely enforced by the telecom ministry. Chidiac has also tried to contact minister Sehnaoui on Twitter via direct messages, which the minister couldn’t not have read, public mentions of those direct messages which anyone could read. The minister has failed to reply.

You could say that these regulations are in place given that the devices are new and all. But even that argument runs moot with our government because other newer devices do not suffer from the same treatment. Samsung’s Note 3, which was released on September 25th – 5 days after the new iPhones, can be registered with passports that have entered the country prior to the phone’s release. It also takes up only one phone slot out of the three you are allowed. Perhaps our telecom ministry wants to gradually but surely enforce one brand upon the Lebanese population simply due to availability and ease of access?

Our telecom ministry is proud of the advancements that have taken place recently, as is their right, despite some of those achievements having a big “however” plastered all across them – the 4G network comes to mind. At the rate we’re going however, I’m longing for the day when I was able to simply pop in a sim, get it to work then remove it and have my phone “liberated” as is, when my  freedom as a customer to buy whatever I wanted from wherever I wanted, within Lebanese law, was still cherished and not subject to demented, silly and retarded regulations that only serve to inflate the pockets of those benefiting from them. Those regulations, Mr. Sehnaoui, not the 4G network, will be your legacy when you’re a minister of telecom no more.

Apple to Lebanon: You Are Irrelevant

Even though 4G has launched in Lebanon back in May, Lebanon must get a stamp of approval from Apple in order for users to be able to use 4G on their iPhone 5.

With very few phones available in the market able to use 4G, the need to get the iPhone on board seems like a pressing matter to get the service to truly take off with customers. For instance, the Galaxy S4 doesn’t support 4G even though it was released recently.

Several months after the launch of 4G, where is Lebanon from getting its networks approved by Apple?

Well, according to an interview with Alfa CEO Marwan Hayek in the latest issue of Cloud961, our ministry of telecommunication and our telecom operators tried to get in touch with Apple who were less than responsive, telling Lebanon’s concerned sides that Lebanon “doesn’t exist on [their] map.”

Apple Lebanon 4G

As for Apple, and in order for the 4G LTE service to run on their devices, they have to certify you as a mobile operator and acknowledge Lebanon as a mobile market on their map. We had been in contact with them for that purpose and even the Ministry of Telecom did contact them, but they were very slow to reply to us. We have recently signed an NDA with them which should enable the ball to start rolling.

Until only few weeks ago, they didn’t see Lebanon as a serious market and they tell us “you don’t exist on our map”. 

How better would life be if some Lebanese can grasp the concept that Apple introduced regarding our telecom market and extrapolate it, rightfully so, over the many other facets in our country? Maybe then we’d be able to get out of this constant mess we’re in. 

Touch’s Network Not Working & No Fix In Sight

You’d be kidding yourself if you said you could live without your phone nowadays. Now imagine that you had full reception and thought there was nothing wrong with your phone… except people had been trying to call you for hours and all they got was a busy signal or line blocked notification.

I’m not a Touch user. But a friend of mine is one of the many Touch users affected. And her story is one that needs to be told, hopefully someone out there decides to expedite attempts to fix the problem, if any attempts are actually underway.

Here is the story.

2 months ago, several people tried to call my friend’s phone only to get a signal that her line was off. However, she wasn’t notified of any calls even though her phone was active, 3G and all. It wasn’t a constant problem, it would appear sporadically and she didn’t know about it until the people that tried calling her met up with her in person.

She then called Touch’s support center. The employee decided that it was a problem with her brand new iPhone 5. I guess blaming the phone is the way to go. So in order to make sure it wasn’t a sim-card issue, she went ahead and replaced it with a nano sim straight out of Touch, hoping it was cutting the sim part that posed the problem. The employee there said it will definitely solve her problem.

Things were working for a while. It could have been the nano sim or that no one reported problems trying to contact her. The trouble-free duration lasted for a week. So when she started having trouble again, she decided to visit the Touch center again and went through several supervisors, the last of which told her the following:

  • It was a problem they’ve been having for the past 3 months and they didn’t know about it if it weren’t for the huge amount of complaints they received.
  • It doesn’t affect all Touch customers (she gave a 40% figure) and is device independent, meaning the iPhone 5 is not to blame.
  • The supervisor automatically assumed my friend is jobless and told her that other people with jobs have it worse. Because your phone matters are only important if you have a job.
  • When asked what my friend can do to fix it, the supervisor suggested to try calling someone every two hours in order to keep her line “registered” on the network. Then keep doing as such every two hours.
  • When asked if Alfa is having such issues, the supervisor said she doesn’t know. What she knows is that her network is affected.
  • When asked when the issue will be fixed, she said: we don’t know.
  • How is it acceptable for such a problem to be taking place for over 3 months with no fix in sight on Lebanon’s biggest network, I don’t know.

    Will 4G LTE Work On The iPhone in Lebanon?

    As of writing this post and as far as I know, the only device in the Lebanese market that is capable of running 4G/LTE is the iPhone 5. LTE enabled android smartphones have not been imported yet and the current ones in the market do not contain that functionality.

    However, there is one hurdle that I’m not sure if the ministry of telecommunication is familiar with regarding actually getting 4G to work on the iPhone 5.

    No, I’m not talking about the iPhone 5’s model, something I told you about many times before, being the first blog to tell you to buy model A1429 (click here). I am referring to the following:

    “Apple’s power over operators is often overstated, but for the first time, a carrier has confirmed that the company conducts its own tests on an LTE network before deciding whether to enable 4G services on iPhones and iPads for customers of that company.

    Swiss operator Swisscom admitted that was the case to mobile-focused website Telecoms.com, confirming an Apple policy that many had previously believed to be true. A Swisscom spokesperson told Telecoms.com that the company “only enables 4G access after testing their device on an operator’s live network.” (source)

    In order for LTE to be enabled on the only LTE phone in the Lebanese market so far, Apple needs to personally verify that the Lebanese network is up to par. Have we received any Apple technicians in the country to test out the 4G network ahead of the pilot phase and subsequent commercial launch in April?

    The iOS 6.1 update brought LTE functionality to a multitude of European and Middle Eastern countries. The functionality is not via activating the chip in the phone, it is enabling the toggle which allows an iPhone’s user to access their carrier’s LTE network. In order for us to receive this toggle in Lebanon, we will require another iOS update. Will Apple do one specifically for us and possibly other smaller markets in case they come and test our upcoming 4G LTE networks?

    Seeing as much more important markets, especially European ones, had to wait months for the 6.1 update, I doubt.

    This is the current state of the network data settings:

    LTE toggle iPhone 5 - 2

     

    And this is how it should be:

    LTE toggle iPhone 5

    I am writing this because I’m not sure if this issue has been brought up to those who are concerned with launching 4G in Lebanon. Having LTE work on our iPhones is not as simple as having the service activated on our sim cards and it also involves much more than simply having a functional network in the country’s main cities.

    Lebanon’s Upcoming New 3G Plans

    Minister of telecommunications Nicolas Sehnaoui alluded to a possible upgrade of Lebanon’s current mobile data bundles on Twitter last week.

    Nicolas Sehnaoui 3G upgradeAs a result, this is how Lebanon’s 3G plans will be:

    Lebanon 3G upgrade 2013

    I asked the minister on Twitter about a timeframe for these upgrades. He didn’t reply. However, I personally expect such upgrades to be implemented quite soon, possibly before April which is when 4G LTE will have become commercially available (link).

    The caps, when upgraded, will become comparable with abroad. However, we still have a long, long way to go until we can compare our mobile sector with abroad.

    For comparison purposes, during my stay in France I had a subscription with mobile operator Free. For €19 per month, I got the following:

    • Unlimited texts and MMS within France.
    • Unlimited calls to numbers within France.
    • Unlimited calls to non-mobile numbers in 40 countries around the world.
    • Unlimited mobile data caps. Speed throttled after consumption of 3GB. (The speed I got on average was about 3Mbps.)
    • Unlimited access to Free’s Wifi hotspots whenever available – and they were available almost everywhere.

    A lot of unlimited there, right? Will we ever see such plans in Lebanon? Honestly, I don’t think so.

     

    Which iPhone 5 to Buy in Lebanon?

    I told you about this before (here and here) but minister Sehnaoui confirmed it on twitter yesterday.

    Nicolas Sehnaoui iPhone 5 tweets

    For the many Lebanese who will benefit from the price reductions (the phone is going for $800 max these days for the 16GB capacity) to buy the iPhone 5 either for themselves or for their loved ones this Christmas, there’s one important thing you need to ask the shop from which you’re buying the phone: which country did you get it from?

    If they got their iPhone 5 from the United States or Canada, model being A1428, the LTE that will launch later in 2013 won’t work on it as the chips are incompatible.

    If the country of origin is anything in Europe or Australia, then it will work. The model should be A1429.

    If you can’t but buy it from the United States, here’s a way you can do it: send the person buying it for you to an Apple Store and get them to buy a no-contract Verizon iPhone 5. It will have the sim card slot fully unlocked and its LTE capabilities are compatible with the frequency that’ll be launched in Lebanon soon.

    For those of you who have already bought their iPhone 5 without asking about the country of origin, tough luck. Odds are you won’t be able to benefit from LTE once it’s rolled out.

    Lebanese iTunes Store Launches Movies Section

    Who doesn't love Wall-E?

    Who doesn’t love Wall-E?

    Apple seems to be adopting a very aggressive strategy rolling out new iTunes services to international markets. Only days after Lebanon got the music iTunes store added to its already existing AppStore, the country’s iTunes Store now has its own bonafide movies section, albeit the selection isn’t that extensive.

    Here are the current top-selling movies at the Lebanese store:

    Lebanese iTunes Store top movies

    The prices range from $9.99 for the Disney bunch to $18.99 for new releases such as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Each movie is more than 1.5GB of downloads in SD format and about 4GB in HD, which makes you wonder: how are the people buying these movies actually downloading them?

    Lebanese iTunes Store movies

    There’s also a separate section for Arabic movies which currently contains a pitiful selection of obviously horrid Egyptian movies.

    All in all, this is a nice improvement for the store. The music section seems to have decent enough sales to have a top 200 ranking, although most of those are not Lebanese music which discredits the idea that Lebanese expats would be the store’s main clientele.

    Hopefully a books section gets launched soon and the Lebanese iTunes store would become complete. Now let’s instill the mentality in people’s heads that buying online using a debit or credit card is okay, secure and that trusted companies are not out there to get you.

    Alternatives To The Viber Ban in Lebanon

    In case you didn’t know, Alfa has blocked Viber on its 3G network and MTC will follow suit later on seeing as the demand to stop Viber came from the ministry of telecommunications.

    I don’t want to go into speculation as to the reason of the ban and I have asked the minister on twitter about that but he didn’t reply. It seems this whole #ProtectPrivacy balderdash only works when it’s aimed at your political opponents. This is proof that what I said is true – the ministry doesn’t give a rat’s ass about your freedom except when it serves them politically.

    Incidentally, Lebanese Twitter and Facebook users were not up in a fit about this as they were about #ProtectPrivacy thing. Guess it only works when they’re driven by some politician. It feels good to be right.

    Anyway, seeing as Viber is not the only VoIP app available on Apple’s AppStore and Google Play – or whatever that store is called, I figured I’d make a list of other apps that you can use and which haven’t been blocked yet. The VPN fix requires you to pay for a subscription eventually. Hopefully by the time they block all other viber-like apps, some Lebanese would have seen through all the ministry’s bullshit and decided to call them up on it.

    1 – SideCar (iOS/Android):

    This is a whatsapp alternative that also allows you to call those that have activated it on their numbers. It’s also free.

    2 – Vonage (iOS/Android):

    This app allows you to call US and Canada numbers for free and most importantly, it lets you call other people who have Vonage.

    3 – Tango (iOS/Android):

    Has the same components as Viber and then some more such as video chats.

    4 – Fring (iOS/Android):

    Allows free calls, video calls and free group calls to those who have it activated on their number.

    Telecom, Mobile TV and LTE 4G in Lebanon

    I was recently invited to an event held by the Ministry of Telecommunications in Beirut to discuss the accomplishments of this ministry throughout the past year.

    Many numbers were unveiled to show improvements from year to year. For instance, the number of data subscribers in Lebanon has tripled in the past year, due mostly to the introduction of the 3G data bundles. The country had about 200,000 subscribers in September 2011 and more than 900,000 in September 2012. The speed has increased 18 fold, from 70Kbps to 1.8Mbps, on average. Although I believe the comparison is slightly unfair since we’re comparing different generations.

    Smartphone penetration in the country is more than 50%. DSL subscribers have increased by about 40,000 over the past year, up from 200,000, which I found not to be that impressive considering all the price drops. The average speed is now 1Mbps. But nothing was mentioned about improving the speed further up to the speeds that are currently advertised as possible. For instance, as a subscriber with IDM, I pay $50 per month for 2Mbps and 20GB in quota. I get the 20GB but I only get 1Mbps. However, since I live in the North and we don’t usually get upgrades quickly here, the comparison may not be accurate. But it’s the same situation in my apartment in Achrafieh where I also get only 1Mbps.

    The minister also announced that 5 companies have gained rights to start introducing data services in the country, making the total 7 with Alfa and MTC. I believe this should increase competitiveness and maybe bring the prices down although no timeframe for the introduction of these companies’ services was announced.

    When it comes to the current generation we have, 3G, it was announced that Alfa, for instance, has over 800 towers to cover a lot of Lebanon. My problem though is that the advertised coverage is still greater than the realistic one. Many areas which have 3G theoretically on Alfa’s map are not covered in real life. However, the coverage has definitely improved throughout the year and seems to be progressing as such. My problem with 3G, and this is even worse with the upcoming 4G, is the pricing. I don’t have a problem paying $19 per month for a data subscription… if I got more than 500MB. With 3G and being a little careful, the 500MB can be barely enough. But I believe that if the ministry’s hope of getting the country high up the digital age is to be realized, then the quotas need to be drastically improved.

    For the full report, click here.

    Mobile TV:

    MTC announced a service that they will be unveiling in the first quarter of 2013 called Mobile TV. The service will allow users to watch a selection of movies, documentaries, series and sports reports on the go. They will also be able to stream live TV without going to a channel’s specific website.

    Mobile TV, however, will not be using your existing quota. After all, what will 500MB do if you wanted to watch a movie on it? MTC will be selling Mobile TV as bundles which will allow you access to a specific number of channels. The prices were not decided upon.

    I personally think this service is slightly more useful than “changing the tone to a song one” because it’ll be very hard to top that in the matters of uselessness and silliness. But overall, I think this is fairly useless. Perhaps some users who actually don’t own a TV set, rare as they may be, will find it useful. But for the absolute majority, I believe the cost-effectiveness of it, especially if you combine it with the much more useful mobile data, will deter them from actually becoming loyal to the service, although I see many trying it out for a month or two.

    After all, why would I need TV on my mobile?

    Either way, you can check out the demo of mobile TV here.

    4G LTE:

    As I had told you before, the frequency that Lebanon will be deploying for LTE is band 3 which means that most commercial phones equipped with LTE coming from outside the US will work on the network, though most LTE users at first will be iPhone 5 users because most LTE-equipped android phones haven’t been released in Lebanon yet, as far as I was told by an Android-enthusiast.

    The area that Alfa’s LTE will be able to cover indoor spreads from about Geitawi to Downtown and down to some parts of Baabda during the initial launch phase. MTC did not unveil a coverage map. The coverage outdoors expands slightly but this is basically the area that will be covered.

    The red areas are the indoor coverage and the gray areas next to them are the outdoor coverage

    20 sites have been equipped in order to provide this coverage and Alfa will be sending out mobile sites to universities across the country to show students the service. They’ve also launched the pilot testing phase yesterday with commercial launch aimed at the second quarter of 2013.

    I asked them about trying to be part of the pilot testing but they said the people have already been chosen, which I thought was disappointing because I’m sure I’m not on that list. I also asked them about potential prices for the 4G LTE bundles and they said decisions haven’t been made yet. However, I shared my concern that 500 MB quotas and 4G will be absolutely ridiculous. I basically stood there as the Alfa spokesperson showed me LTE speeds and counted to 5 in front of him as I pointed out to the data he had downloaded in those 5 seconds. And that was my entire monthly quota.

    The average is for the last 30 seconds. This was taken at the beginning of the test. A few seconds later, the average became well over 90Mbps

    The speeds that I was shown averaged around 90Mbps with Alfa and about 70Mbps with MTC. However, they both admitted that these are lab speeds that are as such because they’re the only ones using the network. When the pilot testing phase ends and 4G becomes available for the public, expect speeds to be much less than 90Mbps although far, far higher than their 3G counterpart. After all, do you need more than 30Mbps as speeds?

    Upload speeds, though, were far – far less impressive with both MTC and Alfa averaging 1Mbps.

    Nothing was mentioned about whether rolling out 4G will be as problematic as when 3G was released. Hopefully the infrastructure was improved drastically since then. Either way, 4G is rolling out with a much smaller area of coverage than 3G and I don’t expect that to change very fast because even in very advanced countries, 4G LTE is present only in major cities so far.

    Other:

    It was announced that the process with which a company can get an ISP license is now very easy. So expect a lot of new ISPs to pop up soon. Alfa said that about 195,000 subscribers use their U-chat plan. Alfa has over 1.8 million active subscribers. MTC did not unveil a number but last time I checked, they had more than 2 million, which brings mobile penetration in Lebanon close to 100%.

    The Beirut Digital District is a nice venue and the event was highly organized. However a lot of the presenters, even though they hold high position jobs at their corresponding companies, had absolutely no idea how to give a presentation.

    Ericsson unveiled a very cool and creepy device which got the attention of everyone there which turns your body into data storage. For example, you go to a hotel and you book a room. The concierge programs your lock to the palm of your hand. So in order to open the door, you only need to touch the doorknob. Futuristic, you bet.

    Nothing was mentioned about upgrades to the ADSL network which I found to be odd seeing as fiber optics had been a discussion point for a while now.

    A service that I believe should be added to the mobile sector is being able to change carriers while keeping your number. I don’t see that discussed anywhere.

    Overall, while there’s obviously a lot of room for improvement – especially when you get a taste of how the telecom sector is in other more advanced countries – the work being done is impressive.