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French Version

Software giant unveils region's first support center

Telecom minister promises to lower rates and reform sector

In a vote of confidence for Lebanon's long-held hope of creating a vibrant outsourcing industry, software giant Computer Associates (CA) unveiled a regional customer support center in Beirut on Tuesday.

With Telecommunications Minister Jean-Louis Qordahi on hand for the news conference, the announcement came against the backdrop of fresh official promises to lower the country's exorbitant telecommunication tariffs, which rank among the highest in the world.

"We are playing a small role in putting Beirut back in the regional role it used to have," said CA's regional director Gilbert Lacroix, who is spearheading a $20 million expansion drive in the Arab world.

Hailing the project as the country's first regional support center, CA officials claimed the U.S.-based company would invest $1 million over the next year on the venture which involves a partnership with an existing Lebanese-owned facility that employs some 40 persons.

Armed with a bag full of new promises, Qordahi said he was serious about pushing telecom reforms that would engender a buoyant outsourcing industry;otherwise prohibited by extraordinary rates and the lack of high-speed internet among other basic industry technologies.

Qordahi said he had submitted legislation that would lower tariffs for call centers, as an incentive to lure foreign investment to the country.

"I can say that it (the draft decree) will be discussed at the next Cabinet meeting, I hope," he said to cheers from the audience of journalists and telecom executives gathered at the Movenpick hotel.

Responding to an intense round of questions from the crowd, Qordahi also touted upcoming plans to reduce tarrifs on outbound international calls as well as on the wireless network. Aging proposals to create a Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA) - essential to market reform, liberalization and privatization - were also nearing completion, he added, offering no concrete dates. The delay in creating the TRA, which was first called for in the 2002 Telecommunications Act, along with other industry reforms was based on "purely political reasons," he explained, blaming himself for even further delay.

"I wanted it to be a nonpolitical appointment, or be the lowest political appointment," the minister said.

"We have done a lot over the last three or four years to change the reputation of Lebanon as a noncooperative or nonfriendly environment for companies in the IT sector," he added.

But speaking to The Daily Star ahead of Qordahi's remarks, Tony Mouawad, president of TeleSupport International - the company partnering with CA - described previous government cooperation in the sector as "poor."

"Telecom is one of our biggest obstacles in Lebanon," he said, adding that no incentive had yet been provided to support the center with reduced rates. Mouawad also lamented the lack of voice over IP technology, that would enable a 200-300 percent saving on costs by allowing calls to be made over the internet.

"We have seen a good initiative from the minister. He has already informed us of his plans and I think it's a matter of days and months before they will be executed," he quickly added.

Praising the Lebanese education system, Dave Winpenny, CA vice president for customer support in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said the decision to invest in Lebanon was based mainly on the local labor force.

"There's no doubt you can get cheaper rates. We can get cheaper rates in England but I can't get the language skills. I can get cheaper rates in other parts of the Middle East but I couldn't get the technical skills. So its always a balance," he said.

Beirut,02 14 2005
Habib Battah
The Daily Star
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