The signal of freedom, part 1: can you hear me yet?
Editor’s note: This is the latest post in neweurasia’s ongoing coverage of the rise of the “Turkmenet”, the online community in the Turkmen language, as well as the rise of the mobile internet across Central Asia. Check out Pravdin’s post on the mobile internet in Uzbekistan.
According to the 2009 Information Economy Report of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNTCAD), mobile phone and Internet penetration is rising most in the developing world. More than half the world’s people now have access to information and communication technologies, especially mobile telephones, with 1.4 billion Internet users and more than 4 billion mobile subscriptions around the world at the end of 2008, the report says.
Matching this worldwide trend, the Russian company Mobile TeleSystems (MTS), the largest mobile phone operator in Russia and the CIS, has just announced that the number of MTS subscribers in Turkmenistan have exceeded 1.5 million, a half million increase since February 2009. It’s a surprising and staggering number.
Consider that Turkmenistan’s population amounts roughly to 5 million, this would mean a roughly 25% penetration. Yes, it’s a relatively low penetration when compared to the higher cellular rates of neighboring Uzbekistan, which is home to 12,5 million mobile users or 46% of the population at the end of 2008 according to ITC Statistics. Nevertheless, if true, it would be a milestone for Turkmenistan.
Dissecting the numbers
On the one hand, Turkmenistan’s telecommunication and information services are considered to be the least developed of all the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). On the other hand, this figure may reflect the number of SIM cards numbers in use rather than actual subscribers. After all, many people use different numbers for phones, messaging, and internet connections.
Nevertheless, the mobile growth rate is impressive. It rides on the back of substantial growth from previous years, with mobile subscriber numbers increasing by 143% in 2008 alone. The country saw its mobile penetration jump from 8%to almost 20% in one year!
If that wasn’t impressive enough, according to Market Research.com, the country’s mobile subscriber base is still expanding at an annual rate of more than 100 percent in 2009 and is likely to hit 2 million subscribers by year-end.
Consider the following remark by MTS Turkmenistan CEO Oleg Atamanov during an interview to Turkmenistan.ru website:
Marketing new tariff proposals, improvement of customer services, introduction of innovative technologies and services – all these contributed to the fact that more than 1,5 million citizens of Turkmenistan have chosen mobile services of MTS.
The signal of freedom
Putting aside the numbers, we need to seriously reflect on the huge impact this could have on the country. Does increased cellular coverage signal more freedom or other social changes?
It’s immediately obvious that this bodes well for the development of the “Turkmenet”. In June 2008 MTS has become the first company in Turkmenistan to offer wireless internet connection as well as WASP services on mobile phones ending the monopoly of the state-owned company Turkmen Telekom on the Internet. Since then more and more Turkmens are accessing the Internet via mobile phones.
The poor landline infrastructure of the CIS has practically compelled mobile telephony upon the region. Indeed, mobile phones are developing faster than the Internet itself, which, in a supreme irony, is dependent upon physical facilities and fiberoptic cables. Yet, cellular access is shaped a lot by socioeconomic class.
Bahtiyar, a graduate student from Turkey, says that in newly developing nations such as Turkmenistan status is attached to mobile phones:
They have become an image thing, a statement for a higher life standard such as cars, designer clothes and electronic devices. It is very fashionable these days to show off with mobile technology. The people want simply to obtain them even if they can’t really afford, while in more developed countries they are being displayed more as a necessity.
It’s an interesting twist to what is essentially history’s most democratic technology. In the next post in this series I’ll be examining another aspect of class as it relates to the mobile internet: price.
For now, I’ll conclude by saying that Turkmens seem to be really enjoying the new, if limited, freedom that comes with the internet. Yet, there is a lot anxiety over how long it will remain. Nothing is certain in this country, which is heavily state-controlled. At any moment it could come swiftly to an end.
(neweurasia recently examined the reasons behind the government’s seemingly liberal new internet policy. Check it out here.)