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Libya's ICT: Fragmented, but not broken

Libya's ICT: Fragmented, but not broken

North Africa's Libya, more specifically its capital Tripoli, has made international headlines because of political violence as the country's two leadership camps (one, the internationally recognised Presidency Council, the other, the Libyan National Army in the East) fight for dominance.

Libyans have no doubt seen it all before. Unfortunately, it must be an all too familiar story for those who have witnessed the scale of socio-political upheaval and global condemnation that epitomised rule under the Muammar Gaddafi regime.

The year 2011 marked the country's first civil war, and in 2016, a new UN-backed 'unity' government was established. Today, this continues to face opposition from two rival leadership bases and splinter groups of militia.

But on the telecoms side, remember telecommunications is like water in any society. It is so essential that any leader who doesn't understand that is really not going to lead very well.

As long as the country has oil, it has bargaining power and a need for communications, and thus the advantages that come with ICT and telecommunications.

Market analysts are straightforward in their synopsis of the country's economy and technology prospects.

"It seems very fragmented," says Koffi Kouakou, analyst and senior lecturer at Wits University. "In fact, pre-conflict Libya was almost like a heaven. Of course, they were under a dictator, but what is important is that this dictator for some reason managed, with his iron fist, to raise the level of life of people to the point where it was much higher than a lot of developed countries. That is the truth that is not being told. He did it so well that almost everything was subsidised – schools, transport and communication.

Information and communications was also largely covered by government. According to research by BuddeComm, it created the unusual situation in which three government-owned mobile networks competed against each other.

Iron-fist rule

The research firm says, today, Libya features one of the highest market penetration rates in Africa, with a mobile voice market 'approaching saturation'.

But in Kouakou's opinion, any socialist country 'ruled by an iron fist' doesn't work, and under the previous regime, authorities moved swiftly to intervene and control communications resources and telecoms, detaining sources they felt undermined or threatened the government.

In 2018, international freedom-focused organisation Freedom House gives the country a score of 54/100 for internet freedom – with 0 representing most free and 100 least free. Its internet penetration is said to be 20.3%.

"Internet freedom improved this year in Libya due to a reduction in arrests, although network shutdowns continue," reads a tweet posted by the organisation.

"But on the telecoms side, remember telecommunications is like water in any society. It is so essential that any leader who is really not going to lead very well," says Kouakou.

There is little doubt that the ICT space, including telecommunications, has been altered by political influence and discord between political factions. It is viewed as having changed from being modest in size, but strong, to being larger, but mostly fragmented and diverse.

"I wouldn't say unregulated," Kouakou adds. "There are three big companies that are running the place, including Libyana and Libya Telecom & Technology Company. These are just the big ones; there are others, but because of the nature of the fragmented government and ruling environment, people are doing all sorts of things – satellite data, piracy, etc."

A revival

Srushti Ghisad, senior analyst in the Middle East and Africa team at Ovum, believes the country's ICT sector is seeing a revival over the past year since political unrest crippled the economy and disrupted the sector.

Internet freedom improved this year in Libya due to a reduction in arrests, although network shutdowns continue.

In a synopsis of the sector, the seasoned analyst says there are two mobile network operators – Libyana and Almadar Aljadeed, subsidiaries of state-owned IT holding company Libyan Post Telecommunications and Information Technology Company (LPTIC).

"Fixed line and internet service providers include Hatif Libya, The Libyan International Telecom Company, Aljeel Aljadeed, and Libya Telecom & Technology Company. All these companies are subsidiaries of state-owned LPTIC. Libyana leads in the mobile sector with over 60% of the market share, while Libya Telecom & Technology Company leads the fixed line internet services market," says Ghisad.

"LPTIC held its first general assembly meeting with all its subsidiaries in February 2018 in Tripoli for the first time since 2014. During these meetings, LPTIC went over strategic initiatives with the aim of developing the ICT sector and improving the quality of ICT services in Libya," she continues.

These initiatives, she says, include the ICT sector restructuring project, the development of fibre optic networks, and the Smart City project.

"In the first quarter of 2017, Libyana, one of the two major mobile phone operators owned by the LPTIC, launched the country's first 4G LTE network," adds Ghisad.

LPTIC, during its latest AGM, also highlighted plans to consolidate its six nonmobile subsidiaries into a single entity and to improve fixed line access and connectivity across the country with the 'last mile' project intended at providing highspeed internet connections to commercial and residential areas via a 15 000km fiberoptic network, she says.

By all accounts, and while major telecoms operators are seemingly reluctant to discuss this market (not least any possible strategies to engage it), there seems a clear-cut opportunity for Libya to overcome challenges and return to the days of its former tech glory.

* This article courtesy of Brainstorm magazine, published in November 2018 edition.

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