Skyrocketing telecom prices cut Lebanon’s poor off their phones

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BEIRUT – Buying grapes at the Beirut wholesale market to resell from her produce cart, an exhausted Rawaa Ghosn described how another layer of her increasingly tenuous life was peeled away after having to give up the job. use of his mobile phone in the face of soaring prices.

“I fear something will happen to me on the street,” the 66-year-old said, adding that she suffered from cancer, heart disease and diabetes. “I usually called my kids or anybody else. Now I can’t recharge my phone account.

This is just one more symptom of Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis which the United Nations said last year plunged 82% of the country into poverty. In the midst of one of the worst inflations in the world, the value of the Lebanese pound has fallen by 90%.

When the Ministry of Telecommunications decided on July 1 to bring tariffs in line with rising operating costs, the price of mobile phone service increased fivefold while broadband Internet prices more than doubled.

Interim Telecommunications Minister Johnny Corm defended the spike, saying it was necessary to keep the sector afloat amid the country’s economic collapse. But it also meant that the rest of the population, whose real wages nosedived with the currency, could not afford their phones, which are used for a variety of essential tasks including accessing the internet, checking when the electricity is available and order from the pharmacy or the grocery store.

Of course, the use of the telephone also depends on the presence or not of a service. Last week, employees of the country’s two mobile phone companies, Touch and Alfa, went on strike over wages. On Wednesday, they were joined by employees of the main telecommunications operator, Ogero. The result has been disruptions in internet and cellular communications across the country, even shutting them down completely in some places.

Local media reported Thursday that Corm had threatened to send the military into service centers where employees stage sit-ins if work did not resume.

At the end of 2019, the Lebanese economy was paralyzed. As the currency slumped, food inflation hit 332%, the highest in the world over the summer, according to an August report from the World Bank.

High prices for phone use also mean that many low-income families cannot reach aid agencies and non-governmental organizations that could help them. Mercy Corps, an international humanitarian aid organization, said it received 70% fewer calls and inquiries on its hotline in July than in previous months.

Elie Yaacoub, an analyst with a Mercy Corps team that compiled a report on the crisis, said other aid organizations reported a similar drop in appeals. He added that they are all trying to set up a free phone line, but that decision requires a court order – and judges in Lebanon are on strike.

Embrace, Lebanon’s leading suicide prevention hotline, has received an increased number of callers asking operators to call them back because receiving calls is free, said Mia Atwi, president and co-founder of the group. .

Those who depend on mobile data for their work are also significantly affected. Omar al-Aridi, a driver for a ride-sharing app, said the cost of the data package he needed for work had increased sixfold with the new rates.

“We pay a lot and the product is very small,” he said. His employer does not cover data expenses, leaving him to pay for them himself.

Before the crisis, the telecommunications sector was a major source of revenue for the Lebanese state, and its history is plagued with accusations of corruption and a lack of transparency.

In an April report, the country’s Court of Auditors revealed that between 2010 and 2020, Lebanon’s telecommunications sector recorded $6 billion in spending for telecom companies Touch and Alfa, which the audit qualified as excessively high compared to similar markets.

“Expenses for what? Who spent what? Who did they get permission from? said Mohamad Najem, executive director of SMEX, an organization that works to promote digital rights in Lebanon and the Arab region. SMEX requests the completion of a forensic audit.

“We want to know not just exactly how that money was spent, on what basis it was spent, why it was spent, who they got permission from, whether it was the best decision, who made that decision, etc.”, he said. .

As internet service, described by the United Nations as a human right, is out of reach for many, there are fears for the future. The younger generation in particular struggles to find affordable internet for homework and college projects.

“I just hope I can afford it,” said Karen Jamal, a 20-year-old graphic design student who already works multiple jobs to pay for her education.

“Some programs I use need the Internet to work; it’s going to be a bit difficult,” she added. “I’m starting to sit in cafes and Starbucks and such just to use WiFi.”

Ghosn, the cart seller, who has witnessed much of Lebanon’s turbulent modern history in her lifetime, had hoped that the new generation would not have to face such a crisis.

“They made us live wars, and now they killed our children with the economy. What else is there? Death is so much easier than this life,” she said.

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