World VoIP NewsTajikistan President criticises telecom industryTajikistan President criticises telecom industry

Tajikistan President criticises telecom industry

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Tajik authorities have been trying to take control of the cellular communications market, which is divided among eight operator companies, half of them foreign co-owned.
The campaign to regulate cellular provider activities began with President Emomali Rakhmon's speech in parliament April 30, in which he claimed cell phones are unhealthy and that telecom services cost too much.

By his estimates, keeping one cell phone costs a Tajik family US $11 per month. The average monthly salary is US $80. In 2009, cellular providers earned more than US $320m. Seventy-five percent of the country's 8m inhabitants own mobile phones, Rakhmon said.

Authorities took down cell phone billboards in Dushanbe May 6, then re-installed most just four days later. Mayoral press spokesman Shavkat Saidov said subordinates misunderstood the mayor's orders.

"What is at issue is regulation of the advertising market, not tearing down all the billboards", Saidov said.

Local television networks launched a campaign against cell phone use, which the president called a possible cause of cancer. Rakhmon personally instructed all educational institutions and the local media to transmit his message.

"Each reporter must prepare several stories explaining the hazards of using cellular telephones", said a state TV journalist, who requested anonymity. "We are supposed to persuade people this is unaffordable luxury at a time of a financial crisis".

Konstantin Bondarenko, director of the National Association of Small and Medium-Sized Businesses, who has worked in telecom regulation for six years, said neither doctors nor the Transport and Communications Ministry has ever seen any medical research data showing that cellular communications indeed threaten health.

A recently completed ten-year study of 13,000 people by the World Health Organization found no conclusive link between cell phone use and brain cancer. However researchers said there were some problems with the study and that more research needs to be done.

For many, having a cell phone is a necessity. But some feel the Tajik government is now making the phones less efficient.

"When I once called my sick parents and failed to get through to them via the land line, I realised what it means to be left without the telephone", said Sabrina, a 29-year-old Dushanbe resident.

On May 14, the Transport and Communications Ministry prohibited calls from the stationary home telephones operated by the state company TochikTelecom to clients of the cellular provider TaCom, which provides services under the Beeline trademark.

Communications Deputy Minister Beg Zukhurov pinned the blame on TaCom.

"We found that company breaching existing regulations", he said. "It unlawfully set up a radio relay station - an antenna receiving and transmitting satellite signals - near the Afghan border".

TaCom has a licence to operate the relay station, company spokeswoman Marina Roshkina said.

"Our subscribers are now unable to get through to emergency services, police, etc., in case of emergency", she said. "Unless they have a land line, people may find themselves in a desperate position".

TaCom has suffered tens of thousands of dollars in losses; if the conflict drags on, the company will have the right to sue, Roshkina said.

Telecom firms operate at the mercy of the government and have no option to take the issue to court, said an employee for a cellular provider on condition of anonymity.

"Earlier this year MLT, which is 75% owned by Megaphone Russia, attempted to re-brand to Megaphone Tajikistan and spent huge sums on advertising but finally was blocked by the Tajik government", he said.

The newspaper Fakty I Kommentarii, citing local analysts, reported that cellular providers received unofficial suggestions to purchase shares in the Rogun hydropower project worth US $5m-10m, but they declined.

"That's pure gossip", said an MLT representative who asked to remain anonymous. "Of course, telecom operators did buy the hydropower project's shares, but the whole thing most likely boils down to yet another attempt to unite us within a single switching centre (within) the state-run TochikTelecom."

The government has been seeking to regulate cellular providers, who reported an income of US $320m in 2009 while actually earning over US $1 billion, political scientist Saimuddin Dustov said.

"Quite understandably, the state wishes to take this market under control", he said. "To do that, it needs a Unified Switching Centre to handle all the cellular operators' traffic and make sure they have zero opportunity to conceal their earnings. At the same time, its attempts to put the industry in order have been wrongful and aggressive."

Government policy has only been scaring potential investors away, complained Gafur Irkayev, president of the Telecom Operators' Association.

"With over 90% of Tajikistan's territory mountainous, cellular providers have run a loss trying to serve the hard-to-access regions", he said.

"Cellular communications is a dynamically developing market, and the involvement of ever more players gives the industry an additional boost", Dustov said. "Over the past two years, our telecom operators have got a firmer foothold in Tajikistan - and this despite what they perceive as growing government pressure. I am positive the government will lose again".

"Unfortunately, (cellular provider-bashing) policy may be detrimental to the state budget, into which cellular providers have annually paid up to US$100m in taxes", Irkayev said, Central Asia Online reports.

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