Ilhom Nodirov, 25, has been working in Berlin for the past three years, but technology has made keeping in touch with his family in Tajikistan a low-cost affair. As of earlier this month, that all changed.
Authorities are resorting to a heavy-handed method to crush money-saving methods for long-distance communication, citing purported security concerns. Sources inside the state agency responsible for regulating the telephone and Internet sector say that the government’s real motive is to ramp up revenues.
A hugely popular technology known as the next-generation network, or NGN, has for several years enabled phone users to avoid racking up huge bills. People in Tajikistan can open an account with one of several telecommunications service providers and then pass on the log-in details to relatives and friends abroad. The foreign-based caller installs an app on their phone and whenever they are connected to the Internet, they can make their call. All that is then charged is the amount it would cost to make a local call inside Tajikistan.
The appeal is obvious. Nodirov told EurasiaNet.org that at tariffs of 0.10 somoni ($0.01) per minute, he has been able to chat with his relatives for endless hours. If somebody made a regular phone call from Tajikistan to Germany, meanwhile, it would cost 1.40 somoni ($0.15) per minute.
The particular attractiveness of this method is that only one side in the transaction needs be connected to a reliable Internet network. In Tajikistan, the quality of Internet connection is often poor and the penetration patchy in the regions, so programs like Skype are not always feasible.
The ability to save money on long-distance calls is particularly important in Tajikistan, where hundreds of thousands of people travel abroad every year for work. Around 1 million people in the country used NGN services, according to official figures.
On December 18, the Communications Services Agency informed all telecommunications companies in the country to suspend access to NGN accounts.
Authorities had hinted strongly that this was coming a few weeks earlier. On December 15, they decided to drive the message by having bailiffs seal the main premises of Vavilon-T, an Internet provider prized for its particularly good speeds. They cited concerns over the company’s NGN services as their motivation. Within three days, the company complied. Almost all the other industry peers have fallen in line too.
Nodirov’s parents are elderly and struggle to master the intricacies of using smartphone messaging apps. The only way they will be able to keep in touch with their son now is by returning to much more expensive, old-fashioned phone calls, Nodirov said.
These days, Nodirov speaks to his parents in brief bursts, to make sure all is well with them. “If before I spent about 30 somoni a month on speaking to my parents, in the five days [after December 18], I already spent 50 somoni,” he said. “We don’t talk the way we used to, for ages and ages, to find out everything that is going on, but just for five minutes.”
Tajikistan’s communications regulators have devised multiple ways to put the squeeze on telephone companies and their clients over the years. In 2016, they claimed to have created a telecommunications node dubbed the Unified Electronic Communications Switching Center, or EKTs in its Russian language acronym. This system purportedly funneled any type of telecommunications-based exchange – be it by phone or Internet – through a powerful computer.
It is not known beyond all certainty, however, if this system actually exists or whether the government has simply claimed it does to convey the illusion of powerful surveillance capabilities.
More significantly, immaterial of whether the EKTs is actually real or not, the communications agency levies 0.20 somoni ($0.022) for every minute of outgoing phone calls to fund the upkeep of the would-be node.
These stories are grist to the mill of those critics of the Communications Services Agency who grumble that this government body is little more than a money-making racket.
The agency is run by Beg Sabur – né Beg Zukhurov; he adopted a new moniker in line with a craze a few years ago for refashioning names to more closely fit Tajik custom. He is a relative by marriage of President Emomali Rahmon, and his agency’s access to copious sources of revenue has seen it branch into multiple other areas of business, including construction and the hotel industry.
Attempts by the media to gently probe the agency’s activities are met with intense hostility. When an article about the imminent change of policy on NGN appeared in the local media earlier this month, representatives of several telecommunications companies were summoned to the communications regulator’s office for a dressing-down and faced veiled threats of prosecution in the event of more leaks to the press.
All industry insiders that spoke to EurasiaNet.org for this article did so on condition of anonymity.
Trends in the industry would appear to illustrate why the government is eager to quash a cost-saving form of technology. In 2016, Tajik mobile phone subscribers made 150-million-minutes worth of international calls every month. That represents a big drop. According to official data, over the past four years, the volume of international calls has fallen by 70 percent.
Fewer long-distance calls mean lower revenues for the communications agency.
“International voice calls are already yesterday’s news because after the appearance of NGN, [and messaging apps like] Viber, WhatsApp and so on, the volume of international calls has fallen sharply,” one manager at a telecommunications company told EurasiaNet.org. “Rather than call Russia at 1.2 somoni [a minute], it is easier for customers to have megabytes and to talk to their relatives for free. If we used to make our money through voice calls, now we are concentrating more on the Internet, and that is a global trend.”
Communications regulators insist the move against NGN is strictly about security.
“People buy accounts and go to Afghanistan and Syria, and their relatives talk to them as though they were in Tajikistan,” a communications agency representative told EurasiaNet.org.
There is mounting speculation that next in line will be messaging apps like Viber and WhatsApp, which operate on a slightly different principle than NGN. While the communications service representative would not confirm whether they would try to block those apps outright, he said that they needed to be strictly regulated to “preserve stability.”
Attempts to implement outright blockages of Internet-based resources have proven quixotic in the past, however. Facebook has been blocked on several occasions in Tajikistan, only for a growing number of people to learn how to use simple ban-circumventing techniques. Clamping down on one app simply drives telephone users to another, as a source at another Tajik mobile company told EurasiaNet.org.
“Voice communication on WhatsApp was blocked in the [United Arab Emirates], but you could still talk perfectly normally through Telegram,” the source said. “The more smartphones there are around, the more services will enter our lives, and limiting them is not possible. People who are not willing to overpay for voice communications will find some way to get around the restrictions.”