Can Lebanon be disconnected from the Internet?

Nose hunched over his phone, Georges wanders along the highway on his scooter, barely looking up to avoid a pothole or a stationary car. He has not yet arrived at his destination but this driver has already accepted his next ride. From Bolt or Uber drivers to door-to-door delivery people, even doctors finding a source of fresh dollars in teleconsultations for expats, many Lebanese depend directly on their internet access to continue working in a Lebanon in total collapse .

A resource that adds to an already traditionally strong consumption: the first country in the region connected to the world wide web (in 1995), Lebanon exhibits a “digital penetration rate”, and therefore net dependence, of 84% – similar with that of a country like France (85%) – despite average connection speeds and a dedicated infrastructure deemed unreliable by the NGO Internet Society. But in a country already experiencing a near-total blackout in public electricity supply, rising energy prices and a strained financial situation, the risk of seeing this last lifeline collapse no longer seems worrisome. A science fiction scenario. A potential disaster for which the Lebanese branch of the Internet Society has even footed the bill: about $10 million a day in losses to the Lebanese economy, according to a report published last September. And this without taking into account the difficulties that the health services or the security forces would face… A prospect that the head of the public landline operator Ogero, Imad Kreidieh, did not rule out when he rang the bell. in the summer of 2021, at the height of the fuel shortage: “Increasingly frequent power outages and the need for increasingly scarce fuel for generators threaten our ability to deliver our services,” he warned. A year and a half later, if the disaster has not happened, the question remains in a country that has not solved any structural problems.

Disaster scenarios

“The risk of a total disruption is very remote, even in the current crisis,” Imad Kreidieh quickly clarifies, however, before detailing the various scenarios that could theoretically threaten all or part of access to services.

On top of these scenarios, a technical failure in the submarine cables through which Ogero accesses global traffic. As a reminder, Lebanon is physically connected to the grid via two submarine cables: Cadmos, inaugurated in 1995 and connecting the country of Cedar with Cyprus, and Imewe, which connects it to a giant cable network that stretches between Marseille and Mumbai. The company pays a fee of five to six million dollars a year to lease the band, which it then resells to its customers or to the Lebanese mobile phone duopoly, Alfa and Touch. “At the moment there is no risk of non-payment”, immediately specifies Imad Kreidieh. But what about technical issues? In 2012, Ogero undertook maintenance work, redirecting its users (and only its users) to the much lower capacity Cadmos cable, which quickly became overloaded. As for the rest of the country, it found itself deprived of access for two days. Ten years later, the risk seems averted, while Cadmos has modernized: “We have 100% traffic redundancy between our cables, so if something happened to one, we could move traffic to the other without a problem. »

If there is a danger, it must be sought elsewhere. For example, on the side of the costs of operation and maintenance of the ground infrastructures which make it possible to extend the coverage of the network throughout the country. The Lebanese Internet “wholesaler” consumes 23 megawatts daily to supply its installations through generators designed to supply electricity for a maximum of seven hours a day and now running 22 hours a day, fueling two million dollars in month. And this is not the only problem the operator faces: “65% of our expenses are billed in foreign currency: spare parts, measuring devices, we import all these from abroad. We will have to find them…”, sums up Imad Kreidieh. All the more so since the crisis has greatly increased the phenomenon of thefts and damages. Some of the “exchange points” may break down without the possibility of immediate repair, depriving some areas of Internet access.

Two speed internet?

In fact, rather than a total outage, Lebanon is more at risk of a partial grid failure. The Lebanese have already experienced it in the summer of 2020, with service outages across the country that spread between June and July. SMEX, an NGO dedicated to promoting a free Internet in the Middle East, had then numbered about forty. The most recent slowdowns and breakdowns occurred in January 2022, following fuel issues. “If nothing changes, it’s likely to happen again. In this scenario, we would have to prioritize the 20% of our infrastructure that provides Internet access to 80% of our customers,” explains Imad Kreidieh. In other words, less populated areas would be sacrificed first.

A hierarchy assumed by those who see price increases as the only possible way out to guarantee the success of the company. Although he partially won his case in June 2022 – with a new price list that multiplies fixed internet prices by an average of 2.5 – the monetary situation is no longer the same. “The increase was decided and calculated at a time when the dollar was worth 22,000 pounds. Since then, we have effectively lost half the value of this increase”, assures the CEO, who is even campaigning for a real dollarization of fees. Leave on the floor those whose income does not allow them to follow the fluctuation of prices? An argument the CEO prefers to brush aside: “If people can afford a £120,000 hookah during the World Cup, they can pay. One last question remains: if it is indeed adopted and implemented, would the increase in prices for users be enough to ensure a peaceful future? On condition of anonymity, an expert from the NGO SMEX, who dedicated a vitriolic report based on an audit of the sector’s management, is skeptical: “When we see the amount of money that should have been used for infrastructure maintenance and was wasted between 2010 and 2020, it is doubtful that everything will suddenly work with a new growth…”

“.lb” domains are functional, ISOC Lebanon assures

The Internet Society – Lebanon Chapter (ISOC Lebanon), an NGO representing the Lebanese Internet community, assured in a press release published in early January that the system governing “.lb” domains was “functional” and that these sites the internet constitute the national network. therefore there is no risk of being disabled. The assurance came after much speculation about the network’s survival after the sudden death on January 3 of Nabil Bukhalid, their founder in 1993 and, since then, manager. Indeed, the fate of Lebanese domain names (DNS, or website addresses) was until now closely linked to that of the computer scientist.

The latter had in fact taken over, at his own expense, the future of the national grid in 2020, while the country was plunged into the worst economic crisis in its history – from which it has yet to emerge. Nabil Bukhalid then transferred the data from the official Lebanese domain registry – Lebanon Domain Registry, LBDR – to a cloud, ie. a technique for delivering IT services to remote servers, including government domains for which he had obtained authorization from the presidency. Since then, registering LBDR as a company in the state of Delaware, United States, in March 2021, and cooperating with intermediary registrars through which holders of a “.lb” website pay their registration and maintenance costs , Nabil Bukhalid has decided to set up a self-financing system that allows the national network to survive. At least as long as the dues are paid.

A task that particularly belongs to any government entity with a “.gov.lb” page, as the computer specialist pointed out last November to L’Orient-Le Jour: “The agreement (with the government) is that I transfer the administration of the domains ” gov.lb” to the office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform (Omsar) without any (financial) compensation, while each government entity is responsible for renewing its DNS through accredited registrars. This transfer must be made after Omsar to be ready to get the relevant DNS to host them there. After Nabil Bukhalid’s death, the outgoing Minister of State for Omsar Najla Riachi had told us however that she was not familiar enough with the file to provide an answer regarding the progress of the system within her ministry to do this, knowing that, in any case, “the country is blocked”, being without a president or a full government for months.

Nose hunched over his phone, Georges wanders along the highway on his scooter, barely looking up to avoid a pothole or a stationary car. He has not yet arrived at his destination but this driver has already accepted his next ride. From Bolt or Uber drivers to door-to-door delivery people, even doctors finding a source of fresh dollars in…

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