Alfa unrolled the country’s first commercial 4G data service in certain areas of Beirut Wednesday and Lebanon’s second mobile operator, touch, is set to follow suit next week.
Yet very few smartphones and wireless devices currently sold in Lebanon support the new network and accessing it will come at a high cost to consumers. Alfa CEO Marwan Hayek said at a news conference that 41,000 devices in the Lebanese market are currently 4G, or fourth-generation, enabled, including the Nokia Lumia 920, the LG Optimus G, the iPad mini, and compatible Galaxy S3 and Note 2 models.
To access the network, however, users must have a new generation mobile broadband-enabled SIM card or a dongle, a USB flash drive router that is plugged into a laptop.
Owners of the only compatible iPhone 5 model – A1429 – will have to wait for Apple to finalize licensing agreements to get 4G in Lebanon.
Though Alfa’s 4G network only supports data now, eligible devices will allow text messaging and calls by the end of June, and voice over Internet calls beginning in 2014. For the next month and a half, handset users browsing on the 4G network will not be able to make or receive calls until they have manually switched to a different broadband frequency.
Hayek said the 4G network is geared to “aggressive data consumption users” and offers connection speeds that are 10 times faster than 3G. Some of the Lebanese bloggers who participated in the pilot launch of 4G in April, however, estimated that connection speeds were usually only about three times faster.
With a price tag varying from $99 per month for a 10-gigabyte data package to $149 for a 40-GB plan, coverage currently limited to central Beirut and the cost of a new generation smartphone running up to $1,000, the 4G service will only benefit a small, wealthy portion of Lebanon’s mobile users. Even the dongles cost between $30 and $122.
Coverage will expand to Dbayeh, Jounieh and Kesrouan in November, and major cities such as Tripoli, Saida and Zahle in 2014.
By the end of 2013, 25 percent of Alfa’s 1,200 4G network sites will be enabled, catering to 40 percent of the population, Hayek said.
Touch General Manager Claude Bassil told The Daily Star the company plans to roll out its 4G service sometime next week and expects rates to be “a continuation of 3G pricing.”
“Well, we’re ready and we’ve been ready for the past couple of weeks,” he said. “I believe we have received approval on the pricing packages from the [Telecommunications] Ministry and will launch in days.”
Bassil says touch has 60 4G sites on air that will mainly cover the Beirut area. It is planning to initially focus on promoting dongles rather than handsets because of the current calling restrictions on the new network.
Touch will offer seven 4G data packages, from $19 per month for 750 megabytes to $149 per month for 40GB. Postpaid customers will pay $.05/MG for out of bundle data consumption.
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