October 25, 2005

Things Donít Work Right

Some things just aren’t right in this country.

If I want to make an international phone call to the United States, it costs me several dollars per minute. I don’t even want to think about how much it costs per hour. So I don’t call anyone. Ever. The two Lebanese cell phone companies, Alfa and MTC Touch, could make a lot more money from me if they came up with a price point that isn’t completely offensive. So far they've made exactly zero from me on long-distance.

The average Lebanese salary is 800 dollars per month. And yet it costs 50 cents a minute just to make a local call to your friend across the street. Per capita GDP here is only a fourth of what it is in the United States. Imagine if you had to pay two dollars per minute just to call to the pizza delivery place.

Supposedly you can call anyone in the world for free if you use Skype or Yahoo Messenger with Voice. But you can’t do it from Lebanon. I’ve tried calling my wife this way several times. I can hear her perfectly. But the upload speed is so slow she can’t understand a word I say.

That’s because the Internet connection in my apartment is as slow as a slug on Quaaludes. And I'm paying extra for the "high-speed" option. It’s only 60 percent reliable. And it costs twice as much as my ultra-fast cable modem connection at home. I’m paying twice as much money, and I get nothing for that extra money but frustration and headaches.

I don’t know if it’s true or if it isn’t, but I’ve been told the government here regulates the Internet and forbids high speed access because they want people to use their phones. Excuse me, but my phone is such a goddamn rip-off there isn’t a chance that’s going to happen. And I make way more money than the average Lebanese person.

This horrible extortionist Internet and telephone “service” got knocked out, along with all the electricity, by one thunderstorm last week. There wasn’t even very much lightning. There was not enough lightning for me to think cool, lightning - and I love a good thunderstorm. The infrastructure was zotted so badly one Lebanese person told me he thought we were under attack. I figured, no, it’s just Lebanon. And I was right.

If you ever come to Lebanon and need to send an international fax, let me tell you right now you can forget it.

I spent four hours yesterday and today trying to find a place that will send a fax for me. I went from one copy shop and Internet café and bookstore to another. None have this capability. Some of the clerks looked at me as though I had asked if they have any hookers in the back. Everywhere I went I asked if they can recommend a place that does send international faxes. Some had no idea. Others suggested places that I could try. Not one of the recommended places could send a fax.

I finally just went to a five-star hotel. At first I felt silly for not having thought of that sooner. Surely a five-star hotel can send a fax!

Not necessarily. I found one and went up to the desk.

“Yes, we can send international faxes,” the woman said from behind the counter. “It costs six dollars per minute.”

“Fine,” I said, even though it was a total rip-off.

I handed her my document and she went into another room. She came back three minutes later. “It isn’t working,” she said.

Big surprise. I braced for her to say “that will be eighteen dollars, please,” but she took mercy on me and didn’t charge me a thing.

I guess I’ll scan my document and email it. That should only take three hours to pull off in this country – Inshallah.

In the meantime, for the love of God, please do not ask me to send you a fax for any reason. It is not going to happen.

When I go home in March, I imagine I’ll feel like I’ve just landed in Tokyo in the year 2050.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at October 25, 2005 07:33 AM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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