Will Beirut qualify in the race for smart cites?

Of late, many countries, especially in developed countries including Seoul, Dubai, Amsterdam and Barcelona have embarked on smart city initiatives. Shanghai has taken the lead in China.

In this article, we provide some of the important requirements of smart cities, the requisite infrastructure, metrics for measuring the ‘smartness’ of the cities and the ecosystem required for the creation and maintenance of smart cities.

In general, a smart city should have: (i) efficient delivery of public utilities such as water, electricity, solid waste, sanitation, and sewerage as well as associated government services (ii) mechanism for supply-demand matching of surface transport services to provide congestion free roads, and minimal waiting time for public transport commuters (iii) active surveillance, monitoring and alerts at vantage points in the city to provide the much required public safety for citizens and (iv) on-demand availability of reliable emergency services such as ambulance, fire safety. Without being such a nag I want to highlight some of the bottlenecks the Lebanese economy is undergoing. Lebanon is facing a multitude of military, security and political problems. However, its economic burdens are no less dangerous than the other challenges the country is facing.

The electricity issue stands at the forefront of Lebanon’s economic crisis — an issue that started to take a dangerous turn — whose pattern has not changed over the past few years: great financial losses plague the government with ongoing power cuts.


There is simply no guarantee that the infrastucture will improve shortly. Between 2014 and 2015, the grey market got a bit whiter. Chammas as well as one private-sector and one publice-sector source told Executive that around 120 grey market ISPs were semi-legalized during that time period. Details are unclear, but what one can confirm is that companies formerly buying international bandwidth from abroad were sold bandwidth by Ogero – at a time when previously licensed ISPs were asking for bandwidth and not receiving it – but continued to be exempt from providing letters of guarantee and respecting distribution rules. Shortly after this apparent attempt at better regulating the market – which disrupted a supply chain at least 10 years old – corruption charges against then-Ogero Director General Abdel Moneim Youssef began to fly.

On April 11, 13, 15, 27 and 29, Ogero quite simply unleashed the speed, to borrow the company’s hashtag. The tests lasted only a few hours, and were conducted in a handful of areas on each day. However, according to Habib Torbey and Patrick Farajian, heads of the data service providers Globalcom Data Service and Sodetel, respectively, the private sector has been able to keep the speed unleashed in the spots Ogero tested, as the lines between privately owned equipment are no longer congested.

Kriedieh has repeatedly said in public (both in March at ArabNet and during April on Twitter) that a new internet pricing decree will be presented by the MoT to the cabinet sometime soon, never committing to a precise deadline. While in the mobile phone segment, such a decree sets the price of all phone calls in the country (and out of it, which is why voice over IP services, like Skype, are still technically banned). In the internet segment, such a decree only sets internet package prices for Ogero. Private sector ISPs can charge customers whatever they choose (although most stick close to the decree to remain competitive), but the price of internet access (an E1 line) they pay Ogero is set by the decree. In the past, the price of internet packages for end users has been based on two factors: the speed of the connection and the monthly cap on download capacity. The decree will remove speed as a factor, Kriedieh explained, meaning users will be given the fastest speed their connections can deliver.


Globally, Lebanon stands at 122 in the ranking of 190 economies on the ease of getting electricity. The rankings for comparative economies and the regional average ranking provide another perspective in assessing how easy it is for an entrepreneur in Lebanon to connect a warehouse to electricity. What makes matters worse is that from 1992 to 2014, Lebanon has paid out about $27 billion to the state electricity company Electricite du Liban (EDL) to no avail, according to a study conducted by an economist for government officials.The electricity crisis in Lebanon summarizes the suffering of an entire state and an entire country that has been beset by negligence, corruption and incompetence of governance.Those following the Lebanese situation are well aware that securing the power supply to the people in Lebanon is a major national issue that has been addressed by successive governments, but without making any conclusive progress. Nevertheless, the issue of the power supply has started, in recent years, to weigh on the overall public treasury in the Lebanese state, as well as on the Lebanese economy as a whole. In terms of figures, according to the same study, the total accumulated deficit of EDL is about $27 billion — an unusual figure.

Because political elites distribute free electricity to beholden constituents and because the state-owned Electricite du Liban (EDL) monopoly is over $4 billion in debt — which adds to Lebanon’s burgeoning economic dilemmas — most residents receive between 10 and 13 hours of power each day. Those who can afford it and who find it necessary to cook, shower, watch television and otherwise run household appliances turn to neighbor hood power-generator services to cover the remaining hours of the day.

Doing so incurs at least two sets of problems: double-billing (applicable for those who pay, of course) and, an often overlooked aspect of this perpetual catastrophe, the acquisition of UPS [uninterrupted power supply] devices that run on batteries and may cost between $100 and $200 depending on size [larger UPS’s are used by businesses though those are far costlier].

The first hurts the pocketbook on a steady basis that redefines loan-sharking since prices fluctuate depending on amperage and location.

The second seeks to protect one’s perishable foods and various appliances.To grasp the magnitude of this deficit, one ought to compare it to other economic figures in Lebanon. For instance, it constitutes about 40% of the total Lebanese public debt, estimated at about $68 billion at the end of 2014, and it also accounts for roughly 55% of the gross national product (GNP), which is estimated at about $49 billion for the same period (this deficit falls on the annual budget of Lebanon’s treasury). Since EDL is a public institution and securing a minimum supply of power is a governmental duty that no Lebanese authority can evade, this deficit is worrying. Thus, the deficit in the Lebanese electricity sector constitutes about a third of the state budget on an annual basis — a rate that has become almost constant in the last three years.

The Lebanese state pays over $2 billion per year ($2.1 billion in 2014) to cover electricity losses from the state treasury, which leads to bad debts in favor of the EDL. The worst part is that despite all these huge figures, Lebanon continues to suffer from ongoing electricity cuts.

where do we go from here

In all these dimensions, information and communication technologies (ICT) plays a vital role. No wonder, companies such as IBM and Cisco are investing millions of dollars in incubating technologies that support smart city initiatives.

An interesting use case is the Department of Energy, US funded smart grid network in the city of Sacramento, California where 615,000 smart meters at customer premises are connected through home area networks (HANs) which in turn are connected to advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) network. The HANs have wired intelligent thermostats among many other home appliances.

These smart meters enable adjusting electricity consumption within houses in tune with grid supply so that black or brown outs are proactively avoided.

Another interesting case is Smart Amsterdam wherein the Digital Road Authority mines different types of traffic data to provide services such as on-demand parking space, and expected travel time to users, thus reducing congestion, waiting time and the associated air pollution, thereby improving road safety and quality of living of its citizens.

Various kinds of devices listed below collectively form what is called ‘Internet of Things’ that are critical in shaping future smart cities:

* Sensors that monitor the condition of utilities such as electricity, water supply, load on surface transport and capture real-time data;

* Gateways that aggregate real-time data from these sensors, perform local analytics and based on the result, take localized action to prevent possible faults from further propagating into the networks ;

* Communication infrastructure to connect these gateways to server cloud for transmitting data on condition of local area;

* Server farms in a cloud based architecture that warehouses the data; perform real-time mining of such data to provide useful information to various stakeholders through various channels such as mobile devices.

These devices facilitate optimization of service availability in the local area while confirming to the regional and macro level constraints. This provides flexibility to local community in terms of prioritizing the usage of scarce resources.

The second important element is the design architecture of the different ICT components of smart city projects. Though currently only a few firms dominate the ICT platform for smart cities, it is required to build platforms with open gateways, application program interfaces, and open data sets so that expertise of numerous Indian IT firms (both small and large) and the huge developer communities can be tapped for building innovative applications and services.

The sensors, communication devices, and the transmission infrastructure provide huge opportunity for local electronics manufacturing which has been identified as a focus area by the government. The data so collected if made open, provide ammunition for big data and analytics start-ups in the country.

Third is measurement of smartness of cities. The GSM Association—the industry body of mobile operators, launched the smart cities index that consists of a set of market, social and economic indicators that track the performance of smart cities initiatives. The ICT/mobile indicators are a subset of a broader range of smart cities indicators. Their use will allow the cities to quantify the impact of ICT/mobile on the city’s operations, its local economy and its citizens.

The seed funding allocated in the budget is just a small stepping stone. For these projects to bloom and become a reality, it requires both financial and working collaborations across all stakeholders. With our urban landscape growing uncontrollably it is time that we step up the pedal to make living in cities a pleasurable experience.

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