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TMCNet:  Downtown workspace offers firms fast Internet

[November 21, 2012]

Downtown workspace offers firms fast Internet

BEIRUT, Nov 21, 2012 (The Daily Star - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- High-tech startup firms now have a new place to do business: in the heart of Downtown Beirut.

Monday evening Solidere launched Level 5, a workspace for startups and entrepreneurs that will allow budding businesses to have access to high-speed Internet, just footsteps away from the city's major banks and private equity firms.

It is hoped the project will give new businesses the boost they need to make a mark on Lebanon's fledgling technology sector.

"We don't want to attract regular businesses. We want new businesses to bring the next killer application," said Richard Azoury, head of the business development unit at Solidere. The real estate giant has been working on the project since last year's Arabnet conference, announcing the launch at this year's annual Middle East technology gathering that was held in Beirut.

The venue, which will be renamed Cloud 5, is approximately 500 square meters and can accommodate 60 people (three to four per company). Three firms have already lined up to move in: Wamda, a platform for Arab entrepreneurs, Procomix, a consulting and digital integration service and Vine Lab, an online music distribution service.

It will cost tenants $300 per month in rent -- far lower than the area's average rent of $370 per square meter or other workspaces that charge over $700 per month (without utilities or Internet).

The main selling point for Solidere is the area's bandwidth, giving users the country's best and most reliable Internet speed.

"We have the best fiber optics in Lebanon. CISCO, Microsoft and Intel are all located here," Azoury noted. "We have real infrastructure." Developed by Solidere Management Services in coordination with Wamda, Level 5 is one of several similar such projects that have recently been launched, the most recent being Beirut Digital District in nearby Bashoura in September.

Others that have opened their doors over the past couple of years include Seeqnce and Alt City, both in Beirut's Hamra district. Meanwhile, Berytech, Lebanon's largest and oldest incubator and business development center, is expanding its services and investment fund.

Like Lebanon's other technology centers, Cloud 5 hopes to attract IT experts and mentors to lend their experience to the young teams.

This also comes at a time when the government is taking steps to revamp the country's long-neglected Internet infrastructure, which just last year was rated as having the world's slowest speed by Speedtest.net, and was also known for being among the most expensive countries.

Today, while there's still significant room for improvement, consumers and businesses are enjoying much better prices and speed.

According to a "One Year Progress Report June 2011-June 2012" issued by the Telecommunications Ministry earlier this month, Lebanon's Internet speed has improved by 15 to 18 times on fixed line and mobile networks respectively, and international connectivity has increased by 11 percent.

Consequently, subscribers can access faster Internet speeds for prices close to what they were paying before, or get a service similar to their previous speeds for far less. In addition, the ministry promised that a backup submarine cable would soon be installed.

Officials hope more such projects will give Lebanon the opportunity to become a regional leader in the IT sector, noting the country's proximity to Europe, high level of education and strong banking industry.

Azoury admits that Downtown Beirut is not always the most hospitable environment, referring to the sporadic political clashes and demonstrations as well as the reputation the area has for being geared toward business elites.

But he hopes the new workspace can be a small step in changing this.

"We want Beirut Central District to be for all kinds of companies." Mounir Douaidy, general manager at Solidere, added: "We put a lot of importance on [this]. We want young people to come to Downtown [Beirut] -- because the city center is for everyone." ___ (c)2012 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon) Visit The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon) at www.dailystar.com.lb/ Distributed by MCT Information Services

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