#سكر_خطك: Why I’m Closing My Alfa & Touch Lines Today

 

sakker-khattak

Over the past few days, we’ve all seen the above screen-grab in one way or another asking Lebanese citizens to stop using Alfa and Touch’s mobile services on Sunday January 8th, in an attempt to raise awareness and fight the horrifying corruption infesting our telecommunication sector.

Lebanon has one of the highest telecommunication prices in the region and the world. For comparison, the average prepaid monthly recharge in Lebanon is around $25 while it’s around $7 in other Arab countries. The services we get with our recharges are also abysmal: a minute is 25 cents, a text is 5 cents and mobile internet is recharged separately at rates that are exorbitant: $23 for 5GB on Alfa and $29 for 6GB on Touch  with extra-use rates of around 7 cents/MB that run up your bill into the stratosphere. And to think those rates were more expensive….

A lot has been said about the aforementioned campaign, and many are saying there’s no point because, for a lot of Lebanese, they’ve already paid Alfa and Touch by recharging their prepaid line or renewing their internet bundle. But that’s not true, because a one day boycott will cost Alfa and Touch a lot of money.

Food for thought: If those affected by this boycott weren’t worried, they wouldn’t be launching the campaign that they are currently undertaking against it. Also, your personal rights are way more important than any political undertone that has been painted over this campaign.

Please note that with both companies simply enforcing prices set by the government, this boycott affects the government first and foremost. Telecommunication is the second largest revenue source for the government after taxes, which means that reducing that revenue effectively cuts off a major revenue source for the government, which could force it to look into better pricing and services.

In numbers: The 2015 estimated revenues from mobile telecommunication to the Lebanese government were around $1.28 billion, which translates to about $3.5 million daily, encompassing texts and calls as well as internet and other services. That’s a lot of money they’re making for the horrendous services we get. A one day boycott will stop both companies from making approximately that much, without adjusting for further increase in their revenue that they’ve made in 2016.

Those of us whose lines are prepaid will only benefit Touch and Alfa if we use the credit that we already have. Those of us whose lines are postpaid and who decide not to use their phones will directly cost Alfa and Touch money by not providing them with a revenue. If we both put our lines off the grid, those of us who don’t won’t be able to reach us by calling or texting which further degrades the quality of their mobile experience.

With a wide enough boycott, Alfa and Touch will also suffer losses from the fact they have to invest in keeping their networks running without those networks being used: they are supposed to keep their networks at maximum capacity to accommodate the usual influx. With no influx taking place, they will run up the losses.

Perhaps a boycott isn’t the ideal way to bring about the change we want. But the point is not to remain apathetic anymore to the fact we, as a country, are being ripped off without anything to be done about it simply because this is our status quo and we’re forced to deal with it.

Call it slacktivisim, short-sighted, or whatever you feel like. But putting my phone in airplane mode for the day won’t affect me much, but it could get both companies, and therefore our government, to realize that their current rates and policies are unacceptable. Morocco did it when their government banned VoIP. KSA did it when their ISPs raised internet prices. It works.

To put it in perspective, the price of around 250 minutes and 300MB in Lebanon is $84, while the regional average is $32. The price of 500MB and 500 minutes in Lebanon is $136 while the regional average is $57. The price of a 1000minutes and 1000MB bundle in Lebanon is near $270 while the regional average is $111. This is not okay.

As an ending note: if you go France, you can get a phone line from a company called Free for around €20 a month. This includes: unlimited calls inside France to all lines, unlimited calls from France to mobile phones internationally to many countries around the world, Lebanon excluded, unlimited SMS and MMS, unlimited mobile internet, and free wifi when you connect to Free’s Wifi Hotspots on streets. That is all.

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. 

4G LTE in Lebanon – The Review: A Premature Venture?

I’ve been using 4G around Beirut for the past two weeks. Alfa were kind enough to give me a dongle and a line with a 10GB plan for that purpose.

The result, 2 weeks in, is that I am less impressed than when they first showed me the service back at some ministry events.

The coverage:

I personally didn’t use the dongle because it doesn’t allow me to really test coverage. Don’t expect me to hop around with it connected to my Macbook pro for testing purposes. So I used the line I got on my iPad mini, which I carried everywhere I went around Beirut, giving me a more or less similar impression of what to expect on mobile phones.

The maps being circulated around for Alfa’s coverage (MTC has similar coverage as well) show a very well covered Beirut. The reality, however, is much less optimal than that. For example, Alfa’s map shows that both Beirut Souks and ABC have LTE towers nearby to enable indoor coverage. I can count on one hand how many times I had indoor coverage in both of those places. Outdoor coverage is also spotty sometimes and you will find your device switching between 3G and LTE often. Coverage in Achrafieh stops around St. George Hospital. Anything East to that doesn’t have LTE. Coverage in Hamra, when I tested it, was borderline horrible. The LTE I got simply didn’t work and when it did was far less optimal than the 3G I was using on my iPhone 5.

The speed:

I had possibly Lebanon’s fastest internet in my pocket for a few weeks, though I guess that’s not saying much. In fact, while the bandwidth I was getting is possibly impressive in itself, it somehow becomes less stellar when you realize that this is less optimal for what 4G LTE should be giving you. My friends in the United States are used to an average of 20 Mbps with speeds reaching 60Mbps sometimes, something I haven’t seen in any of the many, many speedtests I’ve done, fully knowing that the 20Mbps figure was what an alfa spokesperson said to expect on average in Lebanon. Now I wonder, if we are still in the phase when there aren’t many users sharing the bandwidth and we’re not getting the average speed, what can we expect when 4G is rolled on phones?

The experience:

I enjoyed the fast speed that I got whenever I did. For instance, I downloaded The Perks of Being a Wallflower off iTunes, its size being about 1.4GB, in slightly less than 2 hours by creating a hotspot out of my connection. Songs that I purchased from the iTunes store would download in less than a minute. I didn’t need to worry about the time it would take an app to download or update – even if my iPad fell back on 3G more often than not in many of the tasks I mentioned earlier.

I also really enjoyed the leisure that the 10GB quota gives. It is, however, priced at $99 per month which means it’s definitely not within my range. The quotas, on the other hand, are not 4G-centric. There has been constant talk about how we have the best 4G prices. This isn’t true. You, as a user, are subscribing to a mobile data bundle, not a 4G bundle. If your phone supports 4G and you find yourself in a 4G area (only Beirut at this time), you automatically switch from 3G to 4G, which means you use the same bundle that you had all the time for 3G to use 4G when available. So if you find 3G quotas unacceptable, the same logic still applies.

Are the bundles enough? As it currently stands, I would still say they are overpriced. However, I believe the quota itself will suffice, even with 4G, because the speeds are not that much better than optimal 3G (I have seen 3G speedtests that are better than some 4G ones I did) and coverage isn’t good enough for you to burn through your MBs without noticing.

Moreover, LTE will absolutely demolish your battery life. I was literally able to see the battery percentage of my iPad mini dropping in front of my eyes the more I used LTE, which could be because coverage isn’t as good as advertised. So be prepared to have your chargers around when the service is rolled to mobile phones. Trust me. You will develop battery-phobia.

Conclusion:

I think 4G LTE currently in Lebanon is a premature venture that we’ve undertaken. Of course, things are bound to improve from now on and I have to say that my experience with the pilot phase of 4G has been better than the pilot phase of 3G which was all over the place. But do we really need 4G now when there are many facets of our internet sector that are in a much dire need of improvement?

Of course, 4G is great and all. And to further develop economically, our country desperately needs such measures. But couldn’t it have wait a year or so more pending bettering the service before rolling to the public and providing further improvement for our 3G services?

If it were up to me, I would have waited on 4G and developed Lebanon’s 3G even more because our 3G coverage, based on my experience abroad, is not the best that it could be yet in spite of all the tangible improvement we’ve seen recently.

Mobile Phone Purchases in Lebanon To Be Regulated Starting June 1st, 2013

The day we have all been dreading is upon us.

Are you one of those people who ridiculed that $1500 price tag for the iPhone 5 when it was released as you should, bought one on your own from abroad and had a friend bring it over with them and bypass our ridiculous custom fees? Well, you lucked out.

As of June 1st, 2013 that option may not be available to you anymore as part of a new decree to fight phone counterfeits on the Lebanese market which do not possess a true IMEI number (link). Your phone number will have to be registered to your phone’s IMEI number in order for you to get service.

So unless you’re a tourist coming into the country and roaming, you’ll have to pay custom fees on your phone in order to have its IMEI registered and use it on Lebanon’s dismal phone networks: alfa and touch.

What will become even more complicated is you selling your used phone to someone when you want to buy a newer one. If you want to do so, you’ll have to have that phone’s IMEI unregistered to your phone number first, a process they say will happen through texts with your mobile operator or online.

When you buy your new phone, you’ll have a period of 3 months to register it with your carrier. In order to do so, you are asked to keep your purchase receipt.

You can only change 3 phones in 6 months. I can already hear millionaires weeping in sadness.

These new regulations, if applied, are absolutely absurd. A few questions at the top of my head are the following:

  1. Is the best possible way to fight counterfeits across the Lebanese market making it a nightmare for every Lebanese out there to buy and sell mobile phones, a process that should be very straightforward?
  2. Does it make sense to enforce regulations on phones across the board this way when some major smartphone companies, as an example Apple, have yet to officially release their phone in the country and customers have to purchase them at near-black market prices?
  3. What if someone bought their phone abroad as a personal purchase and want to use it here? Do they seriously want us to worry about something other than have the LTE frequencies match and the phone be unlocked? Are we supposed to pay custom fees on every single electronic purchase we make just because it’s the best way to fight those knock-off iPhones and Galaxy S?
  4. How reasonable is it to ask for the nearly 2-million Lebanese who are in possession of phones that don’t even need to be smart to go register them based on a number most of those Lebanese don’t know exist? What happens to those who fail to have their phones registered on September 1st, 2013 – 3 months after the regulations go into effect?
  5. Did anyone  go over the intricate details of this and ask themselves if it’s remotely plausible? How many countries across the world apply this? A google search pointed to India only.

This feels oddly extensive of another decree that took place a few months ago (link) that required Lebanese to go register their phone numbers. Big brother seems to want to watch you even further.

How about we look up to countries where the telecom sector is flourishing and see the steps they’re making in fighting those fake phones and sustain their networks first?

Even so, does a decree on this magnitude even sound reasonable in a country that can’t even manage to apply a simple smoking ban?

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.

 

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.