Huawaei and Nokia Siemens Step in to Gap Left by Russia's MTS in Turkmenistan
Last month, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov ordered the creation of at least three cellular communications companies to compete with the sole national provider, Altyn Asyr, which had about 300,000 customers.
Altyn Asyr has struggled to keep up with the deluge of hundreds of thousands of former customers of Russia’s Mobile TeleSystems (MTS), abruptly forced to leave Turkmenistan after its license expired last December, depriving 2.4 million people of mobile and Internet connections.
Where once Turkmen cell phone users went to bright, attractive MTS stores where they enjoyed rapid service, with the shutdown, people were reduced to waiting in long lines at the state provider’s dreary offices with abysmally slow responses and finally even rationing of SIM cards. So many crowds formed that the Interior Ministry was forced to send in troops earlier this month.
The Turkmen leader has been in talks with various visiting foreign delegations, and recently reprimanded Altyn Asyr for doing a poor job. But no other domestic providers have yet been allowed to come into existence, and it wasn’t clear how foreign companies would be involved.
Now the other shoe has dropped, and the State News Agency of Turkmenistan (TDH) announced that China's Huawaei Technologies and the Finnish-German company Nokia Siemens Networks signed an agreement with the state ministry Turkmentelekom to improve the national cell phone system and provide better-quality services, the semi-official news site turkmenistan.ru reported April 8.
The foreign companies will help upgrade the national operator based on 2G and 3G standards, and will develop a mobile network in CDMA standard with an additional increase of 50,000 subscribers, TDH reported. The companies are reportedly to help increase the capacity of connection to the Internet over a satellite channel and fiber-optic lines, turkmenistan.ru reported.
Concerns remain about whether these companies will help the Turkmen government block websites and monitor users. In the past, parliamentarians and human rights groups have expressed outrage about what they characterized as Nokia's violation of its own guidelines for corporate social responsibility in dealing with the Turkmen regime.
In a video made in 2007, a group of film makers working with a non-profit organization called freedomforsale.org documented the involvement of Western companies in Turkmenistan, including Nokia Siemens, claiming they were helping to prop up a dictatorship.
Meanwhile, Russia's MTS stepped in without any domestic or international protest and quickly doubled and then tripled the user base, providing numerous Turkmens with ease of connection to each other and access to the Internet that was less controlled than in state-sponsored Internet cafes and schools.
While Russian commentators and MTS executives are now warning foreign investors away from Turkmenistan, citing the terrible risks, the Russian experience does not seem to have swayed European and Chinese companies which are increasing their dealings with Ashgabat.