Telecom service in Homs marred by corruption; Internet portals restricted to influential people

Syriatel Communications Service Center in the city of Homs, central Syria - 23 April 2022 (Syriatel’s Facebook page)

Syriatel Communications Service Center in the city of Homs, central Syria - 23 April 2022 (Syriatel’s Facebook page)

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Enab Baladi – Homs

Dozens of people gather every Tuesday in front of the government post office building in the city of al-Rastan, north of Homs governorate, trying to get a phone number and reserve a public Internet portal or a private portal through an agent.

Mahmoud, 45, as he exited the post building, he angrily told Enab Baladi, “It is the tenth time I have come here, and I have not been able to get a phone number. On the other hand, the son of one of the army officers managed to get six numbers at once.”

After 11 years, postal services returned very slowly to the most important city in the central province, al-Rastan, which was an important stronghold of the Syrian opposition. Administrative work has also resumed inside the dilapidated post office, which has faced artillery shells by the regime forces for eight years.

Although four years have passed since the “reconciliation” agreement, the landline phone service covered only a few neighborhoods in the city, while the DSL gateway service is still cut off from the area, despite the allocation of more than 1,000 gates there.

The Syrian Ministry of Technology and Communications said on its official website last March that the number of phone lines in the telephone centers of the Syrian Telecom Company in the Homs branch was 475,000, of which 280,000 are active, and the total number of Internet portals allocated in the governorate reached about 153,775 ADSL gateways, including about 100,700 Internet portals from the Tarassul provider, and about 470,000 portals for private providers.

Private sector owns 60% of portals

The Ministry of Communications allocated 1,024 Internet portals via the DSL service to the al-Rastan Postal Center and then sold 60 percent of the Internet gates to private companies, which raised the price of obtaining an Internet gate while influential people got free portals through nepotism.

Mahmoud, who reserved his full name for security reasons, said that Internet portals have not yet been distributed despite the postal center’s readiness, and he justified this by “opening the door to manipulation by granting public portals to the influential.”

The postal center sold the gates to private companies and kept only 40 percent free through it, according to Mahmoud, who spoke with the center several times to try to understand the problem. “This 40 percent was distributed to army officers, officials of the ruling Baath Party, and those with security ties.”

This situation prompted the rest of the population towards the option of purchasing Internet portals through private companies at exorbitant prices.

One portal equals 150,000 pounds 

The pro-Syrian regime al-Watan newspaper said in November 2021 that the price of a private Internet portal might reach 275,000 Syrian pounds in Homs governorate.

The price of obtaining a private Internet portal has risen to 150,000 pounds through company representatives, and despite the limited number of portals, most residents did not buy it because they were not financially able.

One of the representatives of the Internet portals, who declined to be named for security reasons, told Enab Baladi that the share of private companies is 610 portals, out of 1,024 portals, distributed among five companies, each company has 122 portals, and the price of one portal has reached 150,000 pounds.

Despite the limited number, the total that has been sold so far does not exceed 100 Internet portals, as most residents are unable to purchase them.

The US dollar is trading for 3,980 Syrian pounds, according to the Syrian Pound Today website, which specializes in exchange rates and foreign currencies.

The delegate added that the 415 free public portals were allocated to state departments, security detachments, and influential people.

Technical infrastructure at its worst

At the end of 2009, when it was only six years old, the Technology and Communications Ministry released the first documents of the e-government plan, which was planned to be completed within 11 years, i.e., at the end of 2020.

It was now assumed that 100 percent of the main services are provided electronically at the interactive or transactional level, 50 percent of the use rate of available electronic services (the ratio of the number of users of electronic channels to users of the traditional channel), 70 percent of the total government services are available through channels other than the traditional channel, while 60 percent of government supplies are made electronically, but the only technical progress that has actually been accomplished is the “smart card,” which is very similar to ration cards, with the difference that it is automated.

According to a study by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, prior to 2005, a Syrian citizen wishing to access the Internet had to submit an official application to one of the service providers operating in Syria, attached to a copy of his identity card, and then wait for the approval.

Within this mechanism of submitting applications, the Telecommunications Corporation used to put the Internet subscription service under rationing for long periods of time during the past years, and the continuous subscription “ADSL” is still subject to rationing by the Corporation so far.

Subsequently, Internet providers began to proliferate and were no longer confined to the government provider.

In 2010, Syria ranked 124th in a list of 138 countries under the name of the Information Technology Index issued by the World Economic Forum. In 2013, Syria was excluded, due to the political and military situation, from the classification issued by the Forum annually.

The percentage of reliance on Internet portals in Syria in 2016 reached 33 percent, while a large proportion of users relied on the only two mobile phone networks (Syriatel and MTN) to access the Internet, according to data from the International Telecommunication Union detailed in a study by ESCWA.

According to the same study, the Internet bandwidth did not exceed 93 thousand megabytes per second, compared to one million and 182 thousand in the United Arab Emirates, and a package is a unit of data sent over the Internet that determines the speed, response, and pressure on the network.

In the same year, the Ministry of Communications announced that it had a plan to make Syria “ahead of the Arab Gulf” with Internet gates, but network failures and interruptions of the sea cable later prevented this.

At the beginning of 2018, the problem of slow Internet prevailed throughout the Syrian territories, which led to difficulty opening website pages, in addition to problems updating the pages of social networking websites and applications. This angered the People’s Assembly, which criticized the poor quality of the Internet.

In Homs and its countryside, the state of Internet service is not different from the rest of the Syrian governorates, where the governorate, especially its countryside, suffers from government neglect on several levels related to technical services, including the field of communications.

The areas of the northern countryside of Homs were not provided with Internet service, as the telecommunications companies MTN and Syriatel did not install enough towers in the area to provide the desired service, which was reflected in the quality of the Internet as well.

According to a survey of residents’ opinions in the northern Homs countryside, the telecommunications service “is at its worst, as it is weak mainly in the main cities, al-Rastan and Talbiseh, and gets weaker the further away from the center.”

The number of coverage towers does not exceed four towers in each city, which poses a constant pressure on the network, and negatively affects the performance of the Internet service, and despite the complaints related to poor coverage continuously submitted by the residents, there is no response from the two telecom companies so far.

 

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