Lebanon 2013 | ICT & MEDIA | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Imad Hoballah, Chairman & CEO of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), on the hurdles to overcome in order to attract more investment.

Imad Hoballah
Imad Hoballah has held his current position since April 2010, and has been leading the Telecommunications Technologies Unit at the Authority since March 2007. In 2012, he was appointed Lebanon’s representative to the ITU, and Lebanon’s Lead Representative to the Government Advisory Committee (GAC) of the ICANN, as well as being Chairman of Lebanon’s Governmental Commission on Transition to Digital TV. He also currently serves as President of the Pan Arab Observatory for Cyber Security and Safety, chairs the ITU Radiocommunication CCV Committee and the ITU Standardization Committee for Vocabulary (SCV), and, since March 2008, has been the Vice-Chairman of the Arab Spectrum Management Group (ASMG). He holds a PhD in EE/Communications from Syracuse University.

How would you evaluate the development of the ICT sector in Lebanon?

The sector is developing positively and the improvements of the past few years have been tremendous. The sector, however, suffers from several issues related to political instability, the lack of clear policy and strategy in line with the government's economic policy, an unpredictable regulatory environment, and limited private sector involvement. The biggest challenge that we face in the sector concerns the level of political instability. This instability is a core issue, having recently been instrumental in limiting the interest of major investors. The second challenge is the fact that the country has not allowed its regulator to be fully independent, this in addition to a rather unpredictable regulatory environment. The government has established the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), but it has been stripped of many of its powers and independence. If I were an investor, I would definitely want to know the policy that the sector works to realize, the kind of environment and regulatory framework I would be working in, and how predictable the policy and regulatory framework really were. Only then can you make informed assessments regarding rules and policies, including sector structure and licensing conditions, as well as the competitive environment. Essentially, if we do not create the right comfort level, it's going to be tough for us to attract investors. A third challenge is the lack of agreement on an ICT policy and strategy in general. The Minister has drafted a policy and we have reviewed and commented on it, but the government needs to adopt the right policy for future development. A fourth challenge is related to the private sector. Many claim that the private sector is weak in Lebanon, which is true for diverse reasons. One major reason is that it has not had a real opportunity to function in a competitive, open regulatory environment as most of the businesses are in the hands of the government, which presents a key challenge.

How can these challenges be tackled?

The truth of the matter is that these challenges are easy to overcome. There should be no problem in attracting investors if we can reach a point where ministers, governments, and policies don't change every six to 18 months. There must be an economic base to what we are doing, we must allow the TRA to truly function as a fully independent regulatory body, the regulatory framework we have developed must be implemented, and the private sector must be allowed to function and invest. From the point of view of strength, Lebanon has the right human resources to develop its ICT market. We are confident that, as far as the ICT market is concerned, we have a lot to offer, although the gap is wide between where we are and where we could be. There is a lot of money to invest and considerable potential to tap. The skills of the Lebanese people are there. The Lebanese population is at the cutting edge of technology—people like to socialize, communicate, watch videos, research, create, innovate, and exchange information; the market is thirsty, but there are many communication and informational needs that have not been met. There is a great need for ICT applications, services, content, connectivity, and infrastructure. A workable strategy has been prepared; we just need to enact it.

What is the potential for Lebanon to become a regional digital hub?

I am extremely optimistic. However, one of the challenges we face is the fact that we lack political consensus on how to move forward. If we systematically plan to move forward and the government becomes convinced that ICT is central to economic growth, everybody can begin to work according to a specific ICT policy and strategy, in everything they do with the government, and as they interact with the private sector and our citizens. We have all the ingredients to become a hub; we just need to make sure that our network infrastructure and capacity can handle what is required and that the business environment is conducive to companies coming to do business in Lebanon enabling them to exchange data and volumes between Lebanon and the rest of the world. It must also attract entrepreneurs and encourage new developments and innovations.