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Tajikistan: Communications Regulator Loosening Monopoly

The quality of the internet has been severely compromised by restrictions placed on the market.

The first step to solving a problem is admitting that it exists.

Telecommunications regulators in Tajikistan have taken a surprising step in that direction by reportedly admitting this week that a staggering 95 percent of the country’s territory is covered by only outdated 2G mobile connections.

This situation is in no small part due to the State Communications Service itself. In addition to regulating the sector, the service and the people running it are also major market players, albeit in highly nebulous ways that would be unthinkable almost anywhere else in the world.

Last weekend, the regulator announced that it is allowing two mobile telecommunications operators, MegaFon Tajikistan and Tcell, to source internet data through international channels instead of relying, as all ISPs are now required to do, on a state-run data spigot called the Unified Electronic Communications Switching Center, or EKTs in its commonly deployed Russian-language acronym. 

EKTs is operated by joint-stock phone and internet company Tojiktelecom, which is in turn run by the State Communications Service, a body that has been long run by a relative by marriage of President Emomali Rahmon. This in effect has made Tojiktelecom a for-profit monopoly run by a government service designed in theory to protect consumer interests. 

The ostensible purpose of the EKTs is to grant the state powers to fully vet internet traffic, for security reasons, among other things. The most noticeable impact of this arrangement, however, is that Tajikistan has some of the worst internet speeds in the world. The Amsterdam-headquartered company that operates the Beeline brand and Sweden-based mobile phone company TeliaSonera have both pulled out of Tajikistan amid difficulties navigating a market riddled with corruption and arbitrary policy-making. 

It is unclear what has prompted the telecoms regulator to ease the current monopolistic set-up. 

It is known that at least some parts of the ruling family are frustrated with the current situation. In January 2022, President Rahmon’s son and presumed successor-in-waiting, Rustam Emomali, complained about the quality of service provided by mobile companies. Emomali was especially exercised by what he said was the discrepancy between the quality of service advertised and what was actually provided.

Even Rahmon had grounds for being annoyed. A source at one mobile telecommunications company last year told Eurasianet, on condition of anonymity, that they and industry peers were ordered to work on improving the quality of their service after an incident, also in January 2022, in which Rahmon experienced trouble staying online during a Collective Security Treaty Organization virtual summit. Other participants in that online video call included Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. 

“During the meeting, his connection dropped out about seven to 10 times. The president was angered by the quality of the internet and reprimanded the head of the communications service,” the source told Eurasianet.

But that reprimand was evidently not sufficient to unseat that official, Beg Sabur, who is related to Rahmon by marriage, or bring about any significant change. While there has been a marginal improvement in internet speeds since December 2022, the overall trajectory remains dispiriting. 

Source: EurasiaNet