As of January 20, mobile phone operators in Tajikistan will have to increase the cost of outgoing calls to Russia by 20 percent, up to 1.20 somoni ($0.15) per minute. Only four months ago, the cost of a call to Russia per minute was only 0.69 somoni.
The price increase comes by order of the antimonopoly service and at the suggestion of the state communications agency and stands to adversely affect both mobile phone companies and people wishing to keep in touch with their relatives working abroad.
Mobile phone companies have noted on their official websites that the additional cost has been incurred by the fact that calls are now rerouted through the Unified Electronic Communications Switching Center, a network gateway run by state-owned telecommunications company Tojiktelecom, which is in turn owned by the state communications agency.
The aim behind creating the gateway, which is known by its Russian abbreviation EKTs, was said last year to be that of “ensuring national and information security.” In cruder terms, the system theoretically gives authorities complete monitoring powers over internet and mobile phone traffic.
The state communications agency is run by the notorious Beg Zukhurov, a relative of President Emomali Rahmon by marriage.
According to Kazakhstan-based telecommunications news website Digital.Report, EKTs cost at least $50 million to install — a not inconsiderable amount for cash-strapped Tajikistan. And as the publication points out, the creation of the gateway has in effect led to a crypto-monopolistic situation whereby Tojiktelecom in effect provides all telecommunications services in the country. And given Tojiktelecom’s dubious technical standards, a signals bottleneck has been created, resulting in a noticeable diminution in service across the board.
Industry experts are broadly of one mind that the quality of telecommunications in Tajikistan has struggled to improve and more often than not declined under Zukhurov’s aegis. Zukhurov has been at the helm of the state communications agency since 2011.
In 2005, Tajikistan became something of a trailblazer in the former Soviet space by introducing 3G telephony, but it only followed up with 4G after a nine-year wait.
Also, international and mobile connections in Tajikistan used to be among the cheapest in the former Soviet Union and a vibrantly competitive mobile market meant consumers were regularly able to regularly avail themselves of discounts and special offers. That began to change in 2010, when the government slapped a 3 percent excise tax on phone bills, upping that to 5 percent in 2014.
In 2012, all operators were obliged at the requirement of the communications agency to set tariffs for calls to Russia at $0.12 per minute. Calls could cost more than that amount, but not less. Until then, calls to Russia cost between $0.01 and $0.06 per minute.
(In case anybody has spotted some price discrepancies here, this is the reason. As of 2014, mobile phone companies set their tariffs in somoni instead of dollars. Since then, devaluation has left its mark. So while $0.12 once bought 0.69 somoni, one only needs $0.08 to buy the same now.)
Why did the government insist on the higher and uncompetitive tariff? Who knows? Ask Zukhurov.
One theory is that the government hoped to increase its tax revenues by hiking the price of phone calls. But whatever the reasons, it has all been largely futile. When the prices for outgoing calls to Russia went up, people living in Tajikistan simply got their relatives to call them instead, thus depriving Tajik telecommunications companies of income altogether. What is more, a growing number of people are turning to mobile apps and messengers that enable users to circumvent the expenditure of regular phone calls.
Sure enough, mobile phone companies’ revenues have taken a dive. In its figures for the first half of 2016, the state communications agency revealed that mobile operators’ revenues had fallen by 16 percent as compared to the same period the year before.
Not that the state communications agency is feeling any of this pain.
Zukhurov has branched his agency out of the humdrum of telephony and internet to build a hotel, apartment blocks and sporting complexes in his home city of Kulob. What is more, mobile phone companies and internet service providers have been strongly advised, as it were, to assist him in doing so.