Lebanon’s caretaker Minister of Telecommunications Charbel Nahhas disclosed on Friday that a government legal authority, the Shura Council, has suspended the powers of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), reports local newspaper The Daily Star. Nahhas told a press conference: ‘A few days ago the Shura Council issued a verdict stipulating that Telecom Law 431 [giving the TRA its authority] issued in 2002 has been suspended,’ making the Ministry of Telecommunications (MoT) the sole body authorised to set new rules and guidelines for the sector. Nahhas claimed that the ruling is aimed at enabling the MoT to improve the quality of services in the country, and implied that the Shura Council’s decision would prevent interference in the MoT’s plans to ensure the launch of 3G mobile services, which the minister reiterated would be available to consumers as of September of this year. In February this year Alfa, the Lebanese state-owned mobile operator managed by Orascom Telecom, signed a partnership agreement with Swedish equipment provider Ericsson to deploy the country’s first 3G network based on W-CDMA/HSPA technology, whilst fellow government-backed cellco MTC Touch Lebanon, managed by Zain Group, has also taken active steps to build 3G infrastructure. Nahhas was quoted as saying that ‘nothing would stop this project.’ A TRA communique said that the regulator would hold a news conference on Monday (today) to comment on the announcement by Nahhas.
The latest news appears to be an escalation of an ongoing political battle in Lebanon’s telecoms sector. The current minister has had public confrontations with caretaker Finance Minister Raya al- Hasan and the director general of state-owned fixed line telco Ogero, Abdul Mounem Youssif, who has accused Nahhas of withholding crucial finances from the monopoly operator. In return Nahhas has claimed that Youssif is trying to hamper the upgrade of broadband internet services and the launch of 3G mobile networks. The minister claimed: ‘[Youssif] has been trying for the past six months to block the installation of [international broadband] bandwidth [of] 201Gbps capacity compared to only 2.5Gbps at present.’ TeleGeography’s GlobalComms Database notes that Mr Nahhas was referring to the apparent failure to complete a project undertaken in the fourth quarter of 2010 to upgrade an existing submarine cable, Cadmos. Meanwhile, a legal challenge to the launch of 3G services by Alfa and MTC Touch has been initiated by a group of plaintiffs including domestic ISPs, on the basis that neither cellco possesses a 3G licence from the Council of Ministers nor licensed frequencies for 3G from the TRA, as required by Law 431 – the legislation that has now been suspended by the Shura Council. The TRA and the MoT appeared to be heading for a showdown over this issue, as on 31 March 2011 the former issued a public circular ‘reminding’ all operators of the need to adhere to Law 431 and warning against using any frequencies without formal licensing from the regulator.
Further underlying the troubles in the communications field, Ogero issued its own statement on Friday revealing that it has ceased sales of new DSL and HDSL internet connections, ostensibly due to a lack of finances. A waiting list of 2,000 clients will grow because the company is unable to deliver, said the statement, which placed the blame for the shortages squarely on the MoT withholding necessary finances. Minister Nahhas denied this in a statement to the Star, claiming that, on the contrary, the MoT had ‘very recently’ provided the Ogero committee with a significant influx of telecom revenues.