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.

 

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.

Alfa’s 3G Coverage

More than 6 months after the introduction of 3G in Lebanon, and more than a month after the supposed deadline given to have most of Lebanon covered, Alfa still has a long way to go.

No, I’m not saying the job they did so far is bad. But when their online map shows that they’ve already covered regions with 3G while it’s clearly not the case, then yes we should be allowed to speak up, especially when upon telling them of the matter they reply that the online map isn’t very accurate and that they have a more accurate one in their headquarters.

That online map has changed a couple of times since it first went online. At first, it had a narrow strip of regions already covered with a bigger strip of regions that will be covered by December 2011 and then March 2012. Then the map changed to have that initial strip made even bigger, more coverage I suppose. Hurray? Guess again.

Today, the map shows that all Lebanon should be covered with some already covered in December and the rest by March 2012. We’re already in May and this is definitely not the case.

Living near the coastal areas of Batroun, my region was supposedly covered from the getgo with 3G. And that was far from reality. Not only did Batroun city recently (in the last month or so) get 3G, my hometown, which is covered according to their map, barely gets Edge. GPRS is our connection of “choice.” And neither are stable enough to offer proper connectivity, the phone keeps jumping between them both.

Now, while my problem with all of this is their very wrong map, which has remained wrong despite many of us telling them it is, it’s not the only thing to note. Yesterday, I found out that MTC had 3G coverage in my hometown. They also had coverage in Batroun from the start, even though they didn’t advertise it as aggressively as Alfa did.

Another region which apparently has 3G according to their map is the Balamand region. While I used to get 3G sporadically there, it is still very far from being stable enough from being used. Just yesterday, while standing outside the faculty of medicine, I got 3G. I walked ten meters to the university’s main gate and the phone switched back to Edge, I tried to force it back to 3G – nope, wouldn’t work.

That region has had very intermittent coverage – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Those with MTC have coverage all the time, both as data and simple cellular connection. Alfa’s regular reception in that region, as well as my hometown, is abysmal. You can barely make a regular phone call even if your life depended on it.

So I ask the following: when will Alfa’s engineers take notice of this? When will they get the minimum coverage required from them up to par? When will their shameless marketing stop? And when will their customer service department show the map of their true 3G coverage?

Lebanon’s Alfa Telecom Announces 3G Packages

Alfa Telecom, one of Lebanon’s two mobile carriers, has announced its 3G packages, ahead of the service launch on November 1st.

5 packages are being offered ranging from 100MB to 5 GB in quota and from $10 to $99 in prices, as well as a pay as you go plan, which is tariffed per MB.

Alfa will also be offering data sim cards for users for dongles that connect to laptops, as well as 3G-equipped tablets such as the iPad 3G.

It is important to note, however, that you will not be able to accumulate any MBs that remain and add them up to your upcoming month’s quota. You can also continue using these plans, beyond their allocated quotas, and be charged per extra MB.

These plans are available for both prepaid and postpaid subscribers.

As for 3G coverage, starting November 1st, Alfa will have Beirut city covered, as well as most of Mount Lebanon and Tripoli, with coverage to increase in the coming months.

MTC, on the other hand, has announced it will be covering Beirut, Tripoli and Saida in its first phase starting November 1st and its packages will most probably be the same – although they have only confirmed the $10 and $19 packages.

For more info on 3G in Lebanon, you can check this post. 

3G in Lebanon: Prices, Launch Date and Testing Experience

For those who don’t know, minister of telecommunications Nicolas Sahnaoui unveiled the 3G packages we’ve all been waiting for today.

The main package will be 500MB for a $19 monthly fee.

A smaller 100 MB package for $10 exists as well for those who don’t need extensive data.

Nothing has been mentioned about more data extensive package or if there will be a package suitable for those who need a laptop 3G connection via a dongle only.

Each extra MB of consumption will be charged at 4 cents/MB.

The service will launch on November 1st in Beirut and Mount Lebanon on both carriers Alfa and MTC and will be available for both prepaid and postpaid lines.

Sahnaoui also announced that 4G will be available in Lebanon starting Summer 2012, allowing speeds up to 100 Mb/s, after the initial phase of the fiber optics infrastructure upheaval ends.

What do I personally think of the proposed plans? The $10 one (if true) doesn’t make sense. I’d rather pay double to get five times the allowed quota. But is 500MB enough with 3G? I hardly think so. It’s very easy to burn through them without knowing due to the great speed the service provides. On the bright side, the cost of an extra MB isn’t that much so it might help a little.

However, does the claim that Lebanon’s 3G is the cheapest in the region hold up? Let’s look at 3G prices in KSA:

1GB for 50 Riyals (20,000L.L. or about $13.5), 5GB for1 100 Riyals (40,000L.L. or $36), Unlimited for 350 Riyals(140,000L.L. or $93)
So we definitely do not have the cheapest 3G in the region.

However how is 3G? I can answer that question.

After testing the service for four weeks, I can attest to its reliability – especially in Beirut – on alfa. I was getting speeds no less than 2 Mbps in Achrafieh and faced next to no data interruptions using my iPhone’s hotspot feature to connect to my laptop. I’ve gotten download speeds nearing 300 KB/s, which is more than what I got using 3G in Spain. For reference, a 350 MB episode of the Vampire Diaries took me about 20 minutes to download, which is almost unheard of in Lebanon.

Cynics have been saying that the 3G speeds the 4000 testers were getting are good just because you only have 4000 testers. However, after speaking to an alfa representative, he confirmed that they were not deploying the whole bandwidth they had for those 4000 testers so it could be that when 3G becomes available for the public, speed degradations will be rare.

3G coverage in Jbeil, however, has been very spotty. I didn’t manage to get 3G almost anywhere I went in the city and the moments I did get 3G, download speed was horrible, knowing that Jbeil was one of the covered cities during the testing period.

Tripoli, which wasn’t on the map my carrier alfa provided me with, had great 3G coverage, with speeds averaging 1.7 Mbps as well.

It is interesting to note, however, that I managed to get up to 5Mbps on 3G in Sodeco area in Achrafieh:

 

3G in Lebanon To Be Delayed and Not Launch in October?

4000 lucky people are already using the service – of which I am one – but for the rest of Lebanon, the tantalizing dream of faster internet will possibly just stay a dream.

Personally, I found the area of coverage in the test pilot to be sort of absurd. Why is it that only Mount Lebanon and Beirut are the covered areas? Shouldn’t at least Lebanon’s major cities (Batroun, Amioun, Tripoli, Saida, etc…) be covered as well to get a broader picture of how the service acts in those locations?

However, while using it in Beirut, I’ve found the service to be seamless. I burned through 30 MB of data within minutes and without knowing. And no, I wasn’t streaming on YouTube. The only drawback was something I had also experienced while backpacking across Spain and France: battery life is murdered.

I was getting speeds of about 2 Mbps, which is very comparable – and even better – to the speeds I was using on Spain’s Orange and France’s SFR. Coverage, however, even in Beirut, was still quite spotty and I found my iPhone switching back and forth between edge and 3G frequently.

But basically everyone was waiting for October to roll around so we can put the smart in our smartphones and actually have data plans that would hopefully bring the country and us forward. But it looks like it won’t happen.

Just today, Lebanon’s Shawra council, responsible to uphold whatever little law is applied in this country, has ordered the rolling of 3G services to stop. The degree itself says the delay should happen for a month. But we all know how things in happen tend to be delayed. Why? They cited “illegal” actions taken place by the Ministry of Telecommunication at the hand of both former minister Charbel Nahhas and current one Nicolas Sahnaoui.”

Change and reform, indeed.

Lebanon To Get LTE Along With 3G?

We all know that we have the worst internet in the world in Lebanon. Our politicians are mostly always full of promises and little action when it comes to almost every regard of our lives so treat this as yet another one of those “talks” that get you excited, but hopefully this time something will actually happen.

So 3G is coming to Lebanon come September, apparently. We will finally have decent internet to use, albeit it will only be on our mobile phones. But it’s a start. Many people, however, were critical of the imminent implementation of 3G saying that the world is already moving to 4G or LTE technologies, which offer much higher speeds. Lebanon implementing third-generation technologies while the rest of the world is moving on to fourth (or even fifth) generation stuff isn’t really stepping up your game in a competitive market.

However, it looks like Lebanon will be receiving LTE upgrades in some areas, while 3G is more spread out over the country as a whole – which is very, very good news. After all, even more advanced countries such as the US have not implemented LTE in all of the country, only in major cities so far. So what do you expect from a country with much more limited resources?

According to this article, MTC Touch (one of the two mobile operators in the country) has built over 850 3.5G stations in Lebanon, of which 200 will offer 3.9G services (giving you double the speed that 3.5G can offer, about 40 Mb/s) and 50 of which will be LTE stations, allowing download speeds of around 173 Mb/s.

And if this wasn’t good enough, the prices that are being thought of (and I’m sure this will apply to Alfa as well since this is a monopoly) are not bad at all. In fact, they look to be very promising. Prices could start from a mere $10 (and go to over $100 depending on the download speed of choice) allowing data quotas of about 2GB for smartphones (both upload and download) and over 15GB or even 20GB for laptops.

Alfa will issue a formal statement about the 3G services it will offer on Thursday, May 12.

Apple Is Recording Your Every Move

Do you have an iPhone or a 3G iPad? Well, if you do, that is the case.

It looks like ever since iOS4 was released, both devices have been keeping a record of your location within a hidden file on the device.

It’s not sure, however, what the point of this mass data collection is but it looks to be intentional as the location databases are backed up and are automatically transferred with phone migration.

The file where this information is stored is unencrypted and unprotected so it can easily be accessed if your phone falls into the wrong hands and they can get an approximation of your location for the past year, since the release of iOS4.

However, should people be as worried?

Continue reading

New Services from Lebanese Mobile Operators Alfa and MTC

Lebanese people rejoice…

According to Lebanese telecom minister, Charbel Nahhas, Alfa and MTC will be launching their 3G services in 7 months time, for about 900,000 subscribers.

This will allow Lebanese mobile users to get access to speeds in the range of 7 – 21 mbps, which is a huge increase over what’s currently offered, be it through DSL or through mobile data packages.

In addition that, a fiber optic network is being built across the country, to set the path for a drastic improvement in internet speeds for end-users.

No pricing was discussed for 3G services but hopefully they won’t be as expensive as the horrid BlackBerry service currently offered.

Moreover, for those who like their phone number but dislike their operator, apparently you will be able to switch operators and keep your number. Maybe this will help create some competition between operators as they try to keep their subscribers?

Moreover, for prepaid subscribers, three new recharge options will be available soon.

The first package, available late February, will allow you to recharge a value of 30 minutes for 30 days, for $10. The second one available two months later will give you 60 minutes that will last you 30 days, for 25,000LL. And the third package, available in July, will give you 120 minutes of talktime for 48,000LL or $32.

Hopefully this won’t be just political talk and that we’d get more tangible information soon enough. A true broadband experience will do wonders for the Lebanese economy.’

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