Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Internet Use in Tajikistan Higher Than Estimated

Analysts say poverty and government resistance are obstacles to increased web traffic.
By Ravshan Abdullaev
While a recent study suggests that very few people in Tajikistan have access to the internet, experts say the real figure is significantly higher.



However, the country still fares badly compared to the Asia-Pacific regional average.



Analysts put this down to a combination of factors, including poverty and the authorities’ reluctance to facilitate wider access.



According to a study by the United Nations’ regional arm, the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, ESCAP, only one per cent of Tajikistan’s population uses the net.



For comparison, in the most-connected countries – New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia – between 55 and 80 per cent of the population are web users.



The study was publicised at a two-day UN meeting in Bangkok on November 18, held to discuss ways of promoting the use of information and communication technology in the Asia-Pacific region.



The survey – which gauged the regional level of phone and internet use over the last five years – placed Tajikistan in the same category as Burma, East Timor, Bangladesh and Cambodia.



Yet telecommunications experts in Tajikistan argue that the real number of users is around ten times higher, estimating that some ten per cent of a population of some seven million use the web.



Regional analysts suggest the reason for the discrepancy is that the survey is compiled based on the number of individuals who have contracts with internet service providers. In an impoverished country like Tajikistan, few people can afford to install internet access in their homes, and most access the web in public places.



Muhammadi Ibodulloev, the director of the Citizen’s Initiative for Internet Policy group, suggested that ESCAP’s calculations for internet usage are based on the principle of “one contract, one user”.



“So a school, a university, an office or an internet cafe is counted as a single user, whereas dozens of people could be accessing the internet there,” he said.



Ibodulloev estimated that between 10 and 12 per cent of the population are internet users – a figure backed by other experts.



While higher than the ESCAP survey suggested, this figure is still relatively low compared with the Asia-Pacific regional average of 20 per cent.



Although experts interviewed by IWPR suggested several reasons for the low usage, the main factors cited were poverty and a lack of will on the part of the authorities to boost online activity.



They also suggested a number of ways in which internet access could be increased.



A representative of the Babilon-T provider firm said that providing more affordable computers would help. At the moment, a personal computer from a quality range costs at least 600 US dollars – ten times the average monthly wage.



The director of a telecommunications company, who wished to remain anonymous, said a PC would have to retail for less than 200 dollars for most Tajiks to be able to afford it.



Expert Daler Tajjidinov said lowering the import tax rates on computers and telecommunications equipment could drive prices down.



He added that commercial organisations needed to be given incentives to provide remote areas with internet access. One way would be to offer tax discounts to those companies importing equipment to set up infrastructure outside the main urban centres.



Another factor which observers say affects computer use in general is the unreliable power supply. Tajikistan suffers from constant electricity cuts, particularly during the winter months.



The power outages are caused by a combination of factors including under-investment in infrastructure, poor management of the state-run power company, seasonal variations in supply, and a reliance on importing energy from neighbouring countries.



Between October and April, the authorities introduce tight restrictions on the power supply. In the capital Dushanbe, the authorities are currently succeeding in keepign the lights on more or less all the time, but the position is worse in other parts.



Tajjidinov suggested that one way to overcome this would be to provide access to computers specially designed to run on low power, like those designed for use in third-world countries.



According to analysts, Tajiks are also less inclined to use the internet because of the lack of locally generated content.



Less then 5,000 sites have Tajik domain names (ending in .tj.). Of these, only some ten per cent offer fresh information, while the others provide mainly chat and social networking sites.



The lack of original local content not only makes the internet less relevant for local users, but also means there is less web traffic from outside the country. This in turn makes Tajikistan an unattractive prospect for global companies selling internet access to local providers.



In Tajikistan, just ten internet providers cover the entire country. In addition, four mobile phone operators allow people to access the web using the latest technology.



With so few companies offering the service, competition is low and charges to access the web remain high, explained Atoev.



While analysts agree on the main factors restricting internet use in Tajikistan, many suspect that the government is reluctant to overcome these obstacles. The authorities, they suggest, are wary of supporting a medium used as a platform by political opponents to air their views.



“At the moment, it is not in the government’s interest for many residents to have internet access, because that is where most opposition reports are published,” said Vadim Sadonshoev, an expert in citizen journalism and new media.



“Authorities fear [the internet] becoming too widely accessible,” he added.



Others, however, say it is commercial reasons rather than government attitudes that will be the major factor in determining internet growths.



Entrepreneur Ruslan Rasulov says internet use is developing well without a helping hand from the government. His optimism is largely based on advertisers’ response to a commercial tourism site he recently launched for people visiting Dushanbe.



Rasulov, whose first internet-based project two years ago failed due to lack of interest, said things had now changed for the better, with potential clients showing more knowledge of the medium.



“Advertisers now ask about traffic to the site, and how often content is refreshed,” he said. “Business people are well aware of the internet’s potential.”



Ravshan Abdullaev is an independent journalist in Tajikistan.