All roads for reforming Lebanon’s ailing telecom sector keep leading back to a Telecom policy – or what is known as “General Rules for the Regulation of Telecommunications Services in Lebanon.”
The document was developed and authored in 2009 by then Telecom Minister Gebran Bassil after intense consultations, and as per Telecom Law 431/200 granting the minister the power to set the general rules for regulating the sector in Lebanon.
It is still being hailed for setting down a credible roadmap for the creation in Lebanon of “a people-centered information society supported by a new, effective, and modern telecom landscape.” The document is based on vision of growth, investor confidence, public-private partnership, fair competition and transparent regulations.
Private telecom operators sing its praises because, among other things, it:
However, to the great disappointment of stakeholders in the industry, neither the Telecom Ministry nor the TRA have tried to implement this policy. Former Telecom Minister Charbel Nahhas, who succeeded Bassil, shelved the 2009 policy and removed it altogether from the ministry’s website.
Two years later, it is still ink on paper. This leaves Lebanon with highly taxed Internet services, unfair competition, insignificant securities for investments by private operators, interim-transitory short term licenses, and monopolistic tendencies.
Now, with a new government in Lebanon, all industry stakeholders urge Telecom Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui to reinstate Bassil’s General Rules, with updates if needed. This will go a long way in paving the road ahead for telecom operators, investors, and consumers.
For the government to assure the telecom sector it does not intend to create a new telecom monopoly, it needs to formulate a clear policy that will enforce fair competition among government and private operators, grant long term licenses to all incumbent operators, and implement transparent regulations.
Bassil’s May 2009 General Rules puts forward “A Change-Reform-Repair Plan of Action.” It delineates a roadmap for the telecom sector’s future development to help Lebanon regain its top position among regional telecom leaders.
Bassil diagnosed the tribulations of the telecom sector that led to delays in services, a blow to the interests of the private sector, and a knock to the image and role of the public sector.
His vision was for an “Information Society” with the telecom ministry leading “the national global effort needed to build a people-centered, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society in Lebanon.”
It was based on the 2003 Geneva World Summit on the Information Society motto, where “everyone can create, access, utilize, and share information and knowledge.”
Bassil perceived a “society for Lebanon where all global public-private or local-foreign partnerships for development would be systematically encouraged with clear and strong incentives; a society using Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) as tools for economic, social and human development, in a secure manner fully protecting national security interests, individual freedom, data home and business privacy.”
In the Information Society, “education, knowledge, information and communication are at the core of human progress, endeavor and well-being,” and have an immense impact on virtually all aspects of our lives.
“Extremely rapidly progressing telecom technologies should be regarded as the most powerful tools and instruments for economic and social development, to increase economic and industrial productivity, to generate revenues that may help reduce or reimburse our National Public Debt, to create jobs for our youth and young graduates, to bring back our brains who have fled the country during the past three decades, to reduce all traditional obstacles, especially those of time and distance, thus facilitating social integration and harmony,” in the Information Society.
The General Rules provided for the integration of women, the elderly, the disabled, the poor and those living in remote, rural, and marginalized urban areas, as well as refugees, the unemployed, and underprivileged who should all be granted access to communication services and the means to use ICTs to better themselves.
The Principles and Objectives
Continuing his roadmap, Bassil set out principles and objectives to reform the telecom sector “using all powers granted by the Constitution and by Lebanese Law, in particular by [Law] 431.
”He detailed the powers, responsibilities, duties, and mission of the TRA to achieve the most-effective regulation of all telecom services in Lebanon. “Such regulation is based on the implementation of a Licensing framework, being the only tool able to have all telecom operations conducted throughout Lebanon in a licit manner, protecting the consumers, preserving the financial interests of national treasury and favoring the introduction of advanced services at affordable cost within a transparent and competitive environment.
”The TRA has exclusive power to assign and manage the Radio Frequency Spectrum and make sure licensed operators are following the guidance included in the General Rules and serving the best interests of telecom sector in Lebanon.
To encourage fair competition, the General Rules suggested that incumbent operators be granted licenses to allow them to compete in the Lebanese market and offer high quality, advanced, and competitive broadband services. “Consequently, the minister defines as a rule for regulation that the TRA grants incumbent operators new long term licenses (15- to 20-year licenses) with adequate spectrum assignment.”
According to the 2009 General Rules, foreign firms are to be considered, but priority should be given to Lebanese companies and competition is to be promoted through the implementation of an equal treatment framework between all licensees — incumbents, re-instated, LT, and newcomers.
Also among the principles and objectives of the General Rules is granting the two 100% state-owned companies — MIC1 (currently Alfa managed by Orascom) and MIC2 (currently MTC managed by Zain) 20-year licenses each, giving them the right to operate the existing 2-2.5G network infrastructure and build and operate a new 3G network infrastructure using spectrum assigned by the TRA in frequency ranges allocated by the minister.
Whereas Broadband Internet and data services are currently provided by one public entity – the ministry with OGERO as a sub-contractor –; Sodetel, 50% owned by the Telecom Ministry; and the four incumbent broadband wireless operators (Cable One, Cedarcom, GDS and Pesco), the General Rules sets out the features for a new landscape by introducing Liban Telecom and later a second PSTN operator; the five incumbent operators (including Sodetel), two reinstated operators and eventually two newcomers; and local area new generation network operators.
Bassil’s vision saw Lebanon as the ideal country to situate and operate call-center services. Creating around 9,000 sustainable jobs, this would greatly contribute to Lebanon’s economic development policy.
Competition is encouraged via “equal and non-discriminatory” access to infrastructure while information and communication technologies, seen as an extension of the telecom sector, are to be promoted and revived as a fuel to economic growth.”
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