Protesters at Touch Headquarters criticize telecom duopoly

“I recently bought the recharge card for 48,000 Lebanese pounds,” another protester chimed in, “even though it should be for 38,000.”
by Abigail Carroll

7 November 2019 | 09:58

Source: by Annahar

  • by Abigail Carroll
  • Source: Annahar
  • Last update: 7 November 2019 | 09:58

Protestors wave placards outside the Touch Telecom office Tuesday monring. (Annahar)

BEIRUT: Over 200 protesters descended on the Touch headquarters in Beirut Tuesday morning, demanding improvement in services from one of the two telecommunication service providers in Lebanon. The other telecom provider, Alfa, was the focus of a similar demonstration the same morning.

Chants began around 9am, and by noon more than 150 protesters were still gathered around the Touch building (formerly known as MTC Touch) and showed no signs of leaving.

“Thieves, thieves, thieves! MTC are thieves!” the crowd shouted.

One protester, Lynn, a student at AUB, sat on the curb studying for a psychology exam. “I was on my way home from Beirut Souks when I saw the protest and decided to join. MTC charges too much for its services.”

Other protesters waved signs and took turns shouting songs, chants, or demands into handheld megaphones. A column of police covered in riot gear, cautiously stood between protesters and the Touch offices, but interaction between both police and protesters was minimal and non-confrontational.

Country-wide protests have largely focused on government corruption and siphoning of public funds. But demonstrations were initially sparked three weeks ago by a variety of other related economic and service-related concerns, including a proposed tax on Whatsapp calls, an idea which was quickly nixed after public outrage.

The Touch protest on Tuesday re-focused attention on Lebanon’s telecommunication issues, and comes a day after the government ordered both Touch and Alfa to sell their recharge cards at the official dollar exchange rate set by the country’s central bank.

Both private sellers of cell phone recharge cards and private money exchanges took advantage of the two-week closure of the banking sector to raise their unofficial exchange rates, reportedly charging up to 20 percent more in Lebanese pounds for the officially-recognized equivalent number of dollars.

“[The price for] a recharge card varies from one place to another and there is no one to follow up . . . and make sure that people are selling them in all their stores at the right price,” said Margot, who works in Beirut.

“I recently bought the recharge card for 48,000 Lebanese pounds,” another protester chimed in, “even though it should be for 38,000.”

Vendors have also inflated the prices of recharge cards long before the bank closure. In spite of the recent government directive, protesters stressed that Touch and Alfa need to do more to ensure that third-party sellers honor the official exchange rate.

“At the very least, someone in Lebanon has to pay 10 dollars a month just to keep their phone number. And this doesn’t include data,” said Ali, a salesman from Beirut who has been protesting every day for the last three weeks. “We don’t know how much even that will cost from month to month and whether we will be able to pay in Lebanese pounds or have to pay in dollars.”

When asked what he would request Touch to change Ali said, “Tell us exactly how much the fees will be each month and let us pay in Lebanese pounds.” He also suggested the company consider year-long contracts in which customers could keep the same phone number and then only buy the minutes and data that they are going to use.

Demonstrators also asserted that the Internet service provided by both Touch and Alfa is not stable enough to justify the cost, especially as compared to services provided by telecommunication companies in neighboring countries.

When asked what she would like done to address this issue, Margot answered, “I wouldn’t ask MTC to change anything. I would simply open the market for other companies who are able to give affordable prices to people. . . There is not a law against it, but every time other companies come from outside the country and try to invest and open up, they don’t get permission to do so. It doesn’t make any sense.”

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