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.

 

Lille, France

I spent the month of August discovering the gorgeous city of Lille in Northern France. I went there for a clerkship at one of the city’s hospitals and I absolutely fell in love with its culture, its people and everything it had to offer. Lille is one of France’s biggest cities and yet it still has this rustic feel to it – especially in its older streets, aptly called Vieux Lille.

I made a lot of memories in that city. I won’t go down memory lane and enumerate them for you because I’m fairly certain you couldn’t care less. But I am thankful for getting the chance to go there and meet the people that I met and make those memories that I cherish now.

Xavier & Camille, our amazing French hosts and friends that made us feel at home – literally – for the entire month that we spent there, this is for you. Thank you for everything.

Here are some of the many pictures that I took of the beautiful city of Lille. I’m not a professional so these are not meant to be impeccable – but I do hope my love for the city comes across in them.

Palais des Beaux Arts

Palais des Beaux Arts

Another old street in the city

Another old street in the city

A parc bench in the city

A parc bench in the city

Rue de Bethune

Rue de Bethune

The city's opera house

The city’s opera house

Vieux Lille

Vieux Lille

The view from our apartment

The view from our apartment

A statue next to Palais des Beaux Arts

A statue next to Palais des Beaux Arts

A war monument

A war monument

One of the city's cathedrals

One of the city’s cathedrals

Lille France Street

Welch - one of the city's specialities

Welch – one of the city’s specialities

Lille France Restaurant Comptoir 44

Inside one of Lille's cathedrals

Inside one of Lille’s cathedrals

A mural found in one of Lille's subway and train stations: Lille Europe

A mural found in one of Lille’s subway and train stations: Lille Europe

One of the specialties of the North

One of the specialties of the North

Beer, another specialty

Beer, another specialty

Another street in the old parts of the city

Another street in the old parts of the city

One of the streets of Vieux Lile

One of the streets of Vieux Lile

The opera house

The opera house

Gargoyles

Gargoyles

The city's heart - place du General De Gaulle also known as Grand Place

The city’s heart – place du General De Gaulle also known as Grand Place

Lille doesn't like Sarkozy

Lille doesn’t like Sarkozy

Old Street Lille vieux Lille France

Another street in old Lille

These pictures were taken using a Nikon D5100 and edited using my iPhone 5’s Camera+ app.

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.

4G LTE in Lebanon: The Technical Aspect

Plus961 has written about Lebanon starting initial testing for LTE in about two weeks. The article that Rami quoted, which was published in Annahar (click here), sets a timeframe for initial pilot testing starting November 16th while commercial rollout will start in select areas across the country on April 23rd.

The area that will first be covered is Beirut city, from Geitawi onwards. LTE theoretical speeds according to Alfa testing have reached 100Mbps. Actual speeds will be quite less, however, around 40-50 Mbps in best case scenarios. The average speeds that my American friends on Verizon get are approximately 30Mbps.

A source in Alfa has told me that the frequency bands Lebanon will be rolling out will be band 3 (1800 MHz), initially, with other frequencies added later on, which makes the Lebanese LTE network compatible with most international 4G handsets, apart from the ones that are made proper for AT&T, Canada’s Bell, Rogers and Telus and a few Mexican carriers who have opted to use the frequencies that are employed by the aforementioned carriers: band 4 (AWS) and 17 (700b MHz). I assume it’ll be the same for MTC.

This means that prospective iPhone 5 buyers need to buy their phones from European countries or Australia. The American Verizon iPhone works as well.

The plans, however, haven’t been set yet although I don’t expect them to be up to par with the potential demand. LTE is very fast internet and any plan that doesn’t go into several GBs in quota is doomed to be quite useless. Theoretically, you can burn through the 500MB plan (the most popular one among 3G subscriptions) in less than a minute.

On the other hand, and even though LTE is needed to move the country forward in the ever growing digital age, should we be moving towards it when there are a lot of areas in the country without proper basic coverage, let alone 3G? For instance, my hometown in the Batroun caza barely gets any reception. 3G is unheard of over there.

Moreover, moving towards LTE will also get our ADSL speeds to considerably lag behind with the optimal state households get being 1Mbps.

But either way, since many believe I criticize too much, I’ll leave at that and hope LTE rolling out in Lebanon turns out better than the way 3G was unveiled.

Alfa Introduces New Plans: “Midline” – With a Hilarious Ad!

After a rather successful introduction of U-chat to the Lebanese market, Alfa has come up with two new bundles for its customers, this time for postpaid users. And they have called the new lines “Midline.”

The two bundles consist of the following:

Midline $60:

Midline $35:

 

If you’re a postpaid (sebet) user and you want to switch to midline, you call 111 and you’ll be done. If you’re not a postpaid user, you have to go down to an alfa office where you have to sign a contract and pay $50 as a connection fee.

Honestly, I have no idea how useful these plans would be with such dismal SMS quantities. 25 or 55 SMS for a whole month without a data plan? Really?

So before subscribing to them, make sure you mentally add at least $20 for the 500MB internet bundle, which makes the whole “midline” business very topline.

Either way, similarly to their funny U-chat ad, Alfa have an ad for Midline as well. And it is hilarious as well. Check it out:

Lebanon’s Alfa Introduces U-Chat

I was driving yesterday when I heard an ad on the radio announcing a new type of prepaid plan from Alfa called U-chat. When I got home, I researched about it further and found the offer to be very interesting and unLebanese-like.

U-chat is a new recharge system, next to regular prepaid and Waffer, that’s closer to a plan than a simple credit recharge. Two varieties exist: $9 and $17.5.

You can switch your prepaid line to U-chat and convert U-chat back to prepaid free of charge. The recharges for regular prepaid, not Waffer, apply to U-chat. You can also have someone send you credit if you are low on it.

The following are the plans:

For $9:

For $17.5:

And out-of-plan rates:

 

The 10 or 20 minutes for weekdays are for the whole month. If you finish those 10 or 20 minutes before the month is up, you’re charged 60 cents per minute even if the 20 or 40 minutes for the weekend are not done.

I think the “Out of Plan” charges are overpriced, which makes this the main drawback of the plan, when it comes to minutes and extra MB consumption.

The plans in themselves are interesting considering we’ve never had a texting, calling and data bundle in Lebanon before.  This a good step. But seeing as such plans are apparently not impossible, shouldn’t there be a bigger variety especially for users who might need more than 250MB per month and more than 60 minutes?