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.

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.

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 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:

MTC Touch Ramadan Offer (Unlimited Calls after Iftar): Big Fail!

It started with that ridiculous marketing campaign they called “In My New World.”

I thought it would be about them introducing new services. It turned out about them rebranding. MTC Touch decided to drop the part of their name people use to call the company. They lost the MTC and kept the “Touch” and that made perfect sense to them. I guess we should have taken that as a sign.

MTC decided to offer its subscribers something cool for Ramadan. They get to choose one number which they would be able to call for free after Iftar, throughout the month of Ramadan.

The concept of anything unlimited when it comes to phones in Lebanon is so appealing that many MTC customers jumped on the offer the day Ramadan started.

And behold, a few days later some of them get the following SMS notifying them that they cannot be offered the service because maximum capacity has been reached.

Thank you Twitter user @JessyBechara for the picture

Technically, they aren’t lying. Some of my friends who tried the offer reported horrible service: either the network was busy all the time or they got disconnected more than once during the phone call they were attempting to make and ended up giving up on. So for all matters and purposes, maximum capacity was reached.

However, is that even an acceptable excuse to offer a service so heavily advertised to some users and not for others? Why didn’t they mention it’s a first-come first-served basis which it turned out to be? Even that wouldn’t be acceptable.

Either offer a service to all your users or don’t offer it at all. If you know for a fact that your infrastructure is beyond horrible,  which I believe MTC Touch knows, then simply don’t flaunt anything unlimited to your customers until you can own up to it and offer it to all customers. Mesh neis bsamne w neis bzeit. 

 

Didn’t MTC Touch even consider in its plans that people would jump on the offer? If not, then they seriously need new people in charge of all their departments. If they knew their network would be overloaded and they still went with the offer, then that shows exactly how little they care about their customers. Again, not surprising.

“In My New World,” dear MTC Touch Lebanon, when I’m offered a service, I get it. Maybe you should have used that approach in your campaign?

 

 

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?

Alfa and MTC Announce New Prepaid Packages

Lebanese Mobile Carriers Alfa and MTC have announced new packages for prepaid lines and they feature decent cuts on pricing.

Alfa has revealed the new lineup via its website, and called the new line: Waffer (Lebanese for save-up). You’ll get the chance to buy a new Alfa line for $4.55 and apply the new plans to it, or apply the new plans to your existing line.

The plans are as follows:

Starter: $10 per month for 30 minutes of talk.

Medium package: $16 per month for 60 minutes of talk.

“Heavy” package: $30 per month for 120 minutes of talk.

There are also reductions on SMS pricings. Peak and off peak prices apply as well.

MTC’s packages are also of similar nature, after all our telecom sector is a monopoly.

The interesting thing to note is that these are packages, not new recharge cards. Meaning, they do not go hand in hand with the current packages we all use: you cannot add your existing credit to them, nor can you add up credit while using them. You cannot also transfer credit to a needy friend. Moreover, if you run out of credit, you cannot recharge your line. You need to wait until your 30 days are up. So seriously, what’s the point? Prices reduction but limiting service? Why couldn’t they simply reduce the price on current packages and not introduce new ones?