* Projects include high-speed internet and satellite backup
* Subsidiaries being restructured and consolidated
* Still hampered by bloated payroll, policy vacuum
By Aidan Lewis
TRIPOLI, March 23 (Reuters) - Libya’s telecoms utility has been reunified after years divided by conflict and is starting work on projects worth $1.7 billion to improve connections across a country hit by power outages and infrastructure damage, its chairman said.
LPTIC, which owns Libyan mobile operators Libyana and Almadar as well as six other communications, real estate and postal subsidiaries, suspended restructuring and investment plans in 2014 when fighting in Tripoli led to rival governments being set up in the capital and the east.
LPTIC Chairman Faisel Gergab moved east as a self-declared government in Tripoli appointed a rival chairman, but he was able to return to the capital in late 2016 after a U.N.-backed government was installed there.
“We’ve been working really hard over the last year or so to ... unify the institution under one umbrella, and I can officially declare that we have done that,” Gergab said in an interview.
In January, LPTIC held general meetings with staff from all regions for first time in four years, Gergab said.
“It sent an extremely positive vibe across the board that now we’re in place, and we can start showing some improvements.”
LPTIC is launching schemes to consolidate its six non-mobile subsidiaries into a single telecommunications company, and to improve connectivity and access to services across the vast desert nation.
These include a six-year “last mile” project to ensure high-speed connections to commercial and residential areas through Libya’s 15,000-km (10,000-mile) fibre optic network, and high-speed mobile wireless projects for Libyana and Almadar.
LPTIC signed a contract worth around $80 million with Saudi Arabia-based Arabsat in February for the provision of satellite backup services as well as services for border control and oil facilities over a period of 15 years, Gergab said.
Mobile communications in Libya have suffered frequent interruptions in recent years due to power cuts and infrastructure damage caused by unauthorised construction, sabotage and theft.
The satellite project will take about 18 months to complete, Gergab said, and LPTIC companies have brought in new equipment including batteries and generators to deal with power cuts expected this summer.
Libya remains politically divided. The internationally recognised government in Tripoli is opposed by factions in the east and is still struggling to agree and secure funding for state-run companies and institutions.
But Gergab said LPTIC was at an advantage because it operates more independently than other major state holdings, paying taxes and license fees but otherwise retaining its revenues.
However, it is still hampered by problems affecting other sectors including a payroll that surged after the revolution and a lack of regulation and policy planning.
Before 2011 LPTIC had fewer than 9,000 employees — it now has 15,000, in addition to some 3,000 contractors. Just 5,000 of those employees are needed, said Gergab, but LPTIC is prevented by labour laws from making forced redundancies and, in a shattered economy, few want to leave a secure state-sector post.
“It is very difficult now given the economic circumstances in Libya to lay off people, even if you offer attractive severance packages.”
At the telecoms ministry, the minister appointed by the now defunct self-declared government is yet to be replaced.
“It’s a very, very weird set-up,” said Gergab. “He’s there, he’s sitting there, he’s not recognised by (Prime Minister Fayez) Seraj, yet he goes to the office on a daily basis.” (Editing by Robin Pomeroy)