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

Tajik Ministry Makes Bid for Telecoms Control

Plans to centralise mobile communications worry private phone operators.
By Artyom Fradchuk
A proposal to place all cellular and internet traffic under the control of Tajikistan’s communications ministry has the telecoms industry up in arms.

In February, the ministry formally announced a plan to set up a single government-controlled communications centre to which all existing internet providers and cellular phone operators must be connected.

The ministry says the centre will improve the quality of mobile and internet connections. But telecoms providers are not convinced, and insist the centre will allow the government to monitor phone calls at the same time as charging unnecessary fees to the private operators.

“The state wants to control all the traffic and fill the treasury at the expense of private entrepreneurs,” the head of one internet company told IWPR on the condition of anonymity.

Twelve telecoms companies have written to the government asking for the plan to be scrapped. They have also written to the state agency for anti-monopoly policy and, whose head, Rahmonali Amirov, appears to share their view that it would be bad for business.

In a written reply, he told the providers, “This project goes against the programme of reforms carried out in recent years in the industry, especially the demonopolisation of electronic communications and the development of free competition.”

Tajikistan has - for the size of its economy - what amounts to a booming telecoms industry, with around 10 cellular operators and 20 internet providers operating around the country and two to three more appearing each year. The strength of the sector and the presence of foreign investors have been boosted by the kind of liberal regulation that Amirov referred to.

The general director of the Babylon-M mobile phone company, Bekzod Faizullaev, warns that consumers will suffer if his group is forced to route all calls through the centre. “Connecting to the central communications centre will force us to abandon special deals like free minutes and free outgoing calls,” he said.

Ravshan Valamat-Zade, manager of the internet firm Intercom, believes that the scheme will give the communications ministry a de facto monopoly over telecoms services.

“The price of communications services will increase,” he said. “Providers will depend on one company which provides equipment, and the quality of communications will worsen.”

Maruf Muhammedov, director of the mobile phone group Istera, added, “We don’t understand why this communications centre is needed. The only positive thing about this decision is that it may provide equal access to communications channels, but all this needs to be worked on and thought over.”

Not surprisingly, Communications Minister Said Zuvaidov takes a rather different view. He insists that the centre would be good for the telecoms industry and denies that the government simply wants to eavesdrop on its citizens’ private communications.

He also rejected the operators’ claims that using the centre would force them to raise prices, saying they would not need to install new equipment or incur any additional expenses to do so.

“The providers always say that the consumer will lose out. It’s their favourite refrain,” said Zuvaidov in an article published in the weekly Asia-Plus. “All businessmen are worried only about their own profits. We will not interfere in their contracts or in their fees. The installation of the single communications centre should not mean a rise in the fees charged by operators and providers, or a rejection by clients.”

Zuvaidov said the biggest benefit would be an improvement in the quality of phone services, “With the help of the centre we will be able to track which providers have problems with equipment and [point them out]. Virtually every subscriber with a cellular or fixed connection encounters problems when calling. Privileges such as free calls lead to network overload, resulting in a deterioration in the quality of communications.”

The minister believes the real reason why telecoms groups are so vehemently opposed to central coordination is that it would stop them running pirate internet operations for which they pay no license fee or taxes.

Khurshed Rajabmahmadov, deputy director of the telecoms regulatory agency within the communications ministry, said Tajikistan is the third worst offender in the former Soviet Union for unlicensed phone calls, “The traffic is not registered anywhere, and there is an illegal flow of money, allowing private operators to set their prices much lower than the state Tajiktelekom can do, even though the quality of our communications is much higher.”

But Rajabmahmadov also acknowledged that there was a security dimension to the plan to centralise telecoms.

“Control over all the number and direction of calls - including those made from cellphones - may be needed not only by us, but by the national security committee and the interior ministry. And of course, at their request we will provide this information,” he said.

Parliamentary deputy Yusuf Ahmedov worries that the ministry’s plan will worsen Tajikistan’s reputation abroad, since as far as he knows only tightly-controlled Belarus has a centralised communications network.

Even in Uzbekistan, he said, attempts to create such a centre foundered. “Local operators, together with the international community, were able to convince the [Uzbek] government that this would be a disastrous step,” he said.

In the case of Tajikistan, state control will only lead to abuses, Ahmedov believes.

“The market, and that alone, should be the determining factor in the high-tech sector. The creation of a state-managed centre will lead to misuse and complete control by the particular group whose hands it is in,” he said, adding that there was also a risk that the centre would be privatised in future, creating one owner with a total monopoly in the sector.

Artyom Fradchuk is an IWPR contributor in Dushanbe.