Tajikistan unplugs internet users on officials’ whim
A state-controlled internet provider is gaining all the benefits as privately owned competitors falter.
Countless internet users in Tajikistan were knocked offline for much of April 18 following service interruptions at multiple local telecommunications companies.
A source at a major mobile phone company told Eurasianet that the failure was due to unspecified technical issues at the state telecommunications agency, which has a monopoly on the import of data traffic. The telecommunications agency, a body run by a relative by marriage of President Emomali Rahmon, is both a regulator of the sector and a top player on the market.
Clients at mobile phone company Tcell and internet service providers, including Telecom Technology and Eastera, reported periodic trouble with getting online around lunchtime on April 18. The trouble lasted several hours. Another major mobile phone company, Beeline, had been without internet for more than 24 hours as of the evening of April 19.
The reason all internet traffic is channeled through the State Telecommunications Agency dates back to a 2016 government decree requiring all data to be filtered through a system known as the Unified Electronic Communications Switching Center, or EKTs in its Russian-language acronym. This system purportedly funnels any type of telecommunications-based exchange — be it by phone or internet — through a powerful computer as a security measure. There are strong suspicions, however, that the system may not actually be real and that its stated existence is merely an excuse for the government — or the State Telecommunications Agency, to be exact — to retain total control over the industry.
An insider at Beeline speculated to Eurasianet on condition of anonymity that the ongoing interruption in services may be an attempt by the telecommunications agency to pump companies for additional informal payments.
“Even though we have fulfilled all our obligations to the communications services, they have switched off the internet and forced us to pay over and above what we are required to,” the source said.
Although the internet blackout initially affected many companies, it was only Beeline that appeared to still be feeling the impact on April 19.
VEON, the Amsterdam-headquartered company that formerly owned and operated the brand in Tajikistan, announced on April 5 that the local subsidiary had been bought by a company called ZET Mobile Limited. Although the identity of the ultimate beneficiary of this latter company has not been publicly stated, industry insiders have named him as Hasan Asadullozoda, the brother of President Emomali Rahmon’s wife. Asadullozoda is a powerful operator in Tajikistan, but he has periodically been engaged in turf battles with other branches of the multi-tentacled ruling family.
The State Telecommunications Agency has been run since 2009 as a de facto fiefdom by Beg Sabur (né Beg Zukhurov), the father of one of Rahmon’s sons-in-law.
Sabur has never been a friend to the sector, but he has outdone himself in this past year. In December, the State Telecommunications Agency ordered all local companies to suspend access to accounts for an online service called next-generation network, or NGN, which enabled people to keep in touch with relatives abroad at low cost.
Officials insisted at the time that the measure was purely 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.
One result of the ban has been to force many phone users to revert to more traditional means of communication that are more expensive and therefore can generate more tax revenues for the government. Many suspect that was, in fact, the real reason for banning NGN rather than any actual concerns over terrorism.
Now that the government has a total stranglehold over internet data import, a process it only fully completed last year, it is at liberty to hike prices to internet service providers, or ISPs. And sure enough, it has done so, according to local media reports.
Independent ISPs are as a result forced to pass on their own soaring costs to customers or, which is mainly what has happened, to reduce the quality of their services. The most immediate beneficiary of this development has been Tojiktelecom, a company owned by the communications agency that has been cutting its tariffs while other companies consider increasing theirs.
The greatest risk of the state’s monopolistic control over data traffic is that in the event of any serious technical issues arising at the telecommunications agency, the entire country will be left without any means of online communication. Experts worry this could pose a security risk, but Sabur is as a rule unmoved by such reasoning.
Indeed, he has now set his sights on yet more areas of untapped potential revenue. Last week, Sabur issued instructions to his underlings to run inspections on public establishments offering WiFi. Asia-Plus newspaper reported that the telecommunications agency is mulling forcing places like bars and restaurants that offer WiFi to customers to obtain licenses against payment.