Access to Internet in Yemen: A Constant Struggle

Rim Talal, a student at the Faculty of Computer and Information Technology, was unable to attend her online courses at the Sana’a University due to poor internet service. After the Ministry of Higher Education suspended the academic year in Yemen and announced the conversion to remote learning, Rim could not participate in online learning due to the expensive and weak internet service, prompting her to obtain some lectures from her classmates via Bluetooth.

Rim shared with SMEX that “the online learning experience has been terrible and nerve-wracking without any benefits to students.” She also added that resorting to other options such as Bluetooth has led her to miss a lot of lectures and waste time downloading them.

Poor internet service in Yemen has not only affected schools, but also higher education across universities. Yemeni universities have rolled back the idea of online learning after the failure of remote learning on account of weak internet and unaffordable services,  according to Dr. Samia Al-Aghbari, Head of the Journalism Department at Sanaa University.

At a time when there are increasing concerns regarding the viability of e-learning amidst COVID-19, Yemen had already been struggling with providing accessible and fast internet across the country. Not only does the Internet in Yemen have the lowest number of bandwidth subscriptions in the MENA region (8%), but it is also one of the most expensive in the world, according to a World Bank report. As for internet speed, it is always fluctuating at an average of 4 MBps and ranks at 173rd out of 177 countries in the world.

Alternative but Unsustainable Solutions

YemenNet, Yemen’s main service provider, has failed to provide internet service to many areas in the country, namely villages and suburbs. As a result, in the last few years, several small private endeavors have emerged providing internet from YemenNet to different areas. These projects provide internet to consumers by subscribing to YemenNet services and then transmitting the internet from cables via wireless transmitters to areas not covered by the network. They cover 80% of areas, as per the statements to SMEX by engineer Ahmad Al-Oleimi, Head of the National Networks Union, who described it as “a professional union established by a group of engineers with a vision, plans and programs seeking to standardize, coordinate and organize the activities of networks.”

Rim and many other Yemenis have resorted to using commercial wi-fi networks which “are easy to access at any time and less expensive than the YemenNet subscription.” Furthermore, YemenNet suffers from frequent internet outages due to the lack of regular maintenance and advanced internet technology,  as well as  fuel shortages caused by the Yemeni civil war, now entering its sixth year.

In addition, subscribing to mobile internet services in Yemen provided by telecommunication companies is too costly. The prices of those bundles are 400% more expensive compared to the ones provided by YemenNet, without any difference in internet quality, as Rim assures.

Attempt to Assert Market Monopoly Despite Poor Services

YemenNet is trying to fight these networks by issuing decisions to crack down on network owners and users alike. At the beginning of last year, YemenNet raised the regular subscription fee to 40,000 Yemeni riyals (64 US dollars) and set the capacity at 300 GB and speed at no more than 4 MB, to fight these alternative networks. Contrastingly, the monthly subscription price before 2016, had been around 30,000 riyals (50 dollars) for a speed not exceeding 4 MB and offering open capacity. This restriction prompted many internet cafes and private networks to close shop due to the high cost and lack of consumer demand. As a result, many lost the opportunity to access a network subscription, especially in remote areas not covered by YemenNet services.

At the end of last year, and in conjunction with the escalations by the “National Networks Union” demanding old pricing be restored and the service improved, the Ministries of Interior and Telecommunications in the Sanaa Government launched a campaign to seize the transmitting equipment of wireless networks. At that time, the union had received more than 56 reports by network owners whose devices were seized from various regions, especially rural areas, Al-Oleimi told SMEX.

These decisions were met with widespread popular uproar at a time when Yemeni users had been waiting for improved services and instead received poorer access. Engineer Al-Oleimi, Head of the National Networks Union, said in an interview with SMEX, that “these decisions are not in the interest of users and violate their right to internet access. They also harm network owners and internet cafes who provide services YemenNet can’t offer.”

After an intervention by the Yemeni Parliament and an impartial mediation committee, it was agreed to return the devices to their owners, reconsider internet prices and improve service. However, the devices have not been returned to their owners yet, said MP Ahmed Saif Hashid, a judge and member of the Rights and Freedoms Committee in Parliament, who is also the person in charge of the Internet issue dossier. Hashid assured SMEX that “there are over 50 thousand Yemeni households benefiting from the internet networks; their only livelihood. Such decisions harm a large number of households as well as restrict citizens’ right to access the Internet at any time. This is a breach of law and a clear violation of citizen rights.”

“Competing” Companies Are Just as Inadequate 

In 2018, the Government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi launched Aden Net, to provide telecommunication and internet services “with 4G and 5G technology in Aden at better speed and cheaper prices,” as the company had previously claimed. The Hadi Government wanted to present Aden Net as an alternative to YemenNet, whose network is based in Sanaa and controlled by Ansar Allah (the Houthis). It is the official service provider that was established before the beginning of the war in Yemen and was managed by the State, specifically the Public Telecommunication Corporation, and affiliated to the Yemeni Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology.

Some were hopeful with the launch of Aden Net, whose website states that it provides “high-speed internet at low prices” by relying on transmission towers operating on 4G technology. However, it seems that Aden Net services are not so different from those of YemenNet in terms of poor quality, as some users in Aden reported to us. “Most of the time, the internet is worse than that provided by YemenNet. Two years after its launch, the company has still not been able to cover any areas outside Aden, which is controlled  by the Hadi Government,” according to users who prefer anonymity.

Solutions to Improve Services

Yemen generally lacks telecommunications infrastructure, where the Public Telecommunication Corporation still uses copper wires for its DSL service. This network is very old and was established to provide landline telephone services only before it was converted to provide the DSL service.

Dr. Naji Al-Shaibani, Dean of the Faculty of Computer and Information Technology at Sanaa University, told SMEX that “the DSL service currently provided by YemenNet has limited speed and does not fit the technological advancements happening today in online business and education.” In addition, Al-Shaibani stresses that in addition to the importance of maintaining and developing the DSL network, “it is necessary to increase the capacities of international quotas because the number of subscribers currently exceeds the number of IPv4 available at YemenNet.” Therefore, Al-Shaibani believes that in the near future it is possible to resort to “4G wireless internet service to secure faster internet services, at least for mobile devices.”

As for managing internet affairs, Muhammad al-Maqwali, an engineer specializing in telecommunication and the Internet, believes that “telecommunication and internet services should be managed away from the conflicting authorities in Yemen in order to enhance their performance and work to improve them.” He explains to SMEX that this would be possible if “a third party, with no relation whatsoever to the conflicting parties, takes on the whole sector, provided that telecommunication revenues are placed in a separate fund aimed at developing the service across the country.”

In addition to the poor service and the frequent outages of the YemenNet network, there is another issue of the company’s monopoly on internet services preventing any other party from competing in the market. Therefore, MP Hashid stresses that it is necessary for Parliament to enact a law that guarantees “competitors rights to participate while ensuring protection of their assets by the State, so as to provide appropriate services that would keep up with the current global scene.” Nonetheless, these improvements require money, security, and the enactment of laws by Parliament, but is this really possible in a country still ravaged by war?

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Mubarak al Yosofy

Mubarak al Yosofy is a Yemeni journalist.