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Turkmenistan: Wireless Internet Offer Hints At End To State Monopoly

  • Farangis Najibullah --> Old and new media: an Internet cafe in Ashgabat (ITAR-TASS) Russia's Mobile TeleSystems (MTS) has become the first company, foreign or domestic, to offer wireless Internet connection in Turkmenistan -- a country dubbed "one of the world's Internet enemies" by a top media rights group.

State-run Turkmen Telecom had been the country's only Internet provider, and used its monopoly position to block opposition websites and other news sources.

MTS, which already provided mobile-phone services in some 27 Turkmen cities and provinces, says customers would be able to access the Internet "through mobile phones and computers...[and] surf on the worldwide web of information, write and receive e-mails, chat with friends and colleagues, and be updated with the latest news."

It remains to be seen, however, whether the Russian firm will able to give its Turkmen customers full access to the free flow of news and information available on the Internet.

Turkmenistan is notorious for censoring news and blocking websites. In a country with more than 5 million people, state operator Turkmen Telecom's outdated hardware reportedly allows no more than 20,000 computers to be connected to the Internet at any one time.

After coming to power following the death of strongman Saparmurat Niyazov in late 2006, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov promised to make the Internet a part of Turkmen people's daily lives.

He allowed Internet cafes to open, giving people access to the Internet regardless of their professions. Under Niyazov's rule, only government employees, diplomats, and offices for major international companies were allowed to use the Internet.

Bumps In The Road

Now some 15 Internet cafes have been opened in the country, although prohibitive pricing is just one of many impediments to widespread public access to the Internet.

Halmurad Klychdurdiev, an Ashgabat-based journalist, says Internet access in Turkmenistan exists in only the most rudimentary form.

"In order to get Internet connection, telephone lines should operate properly, but we have very poor telephone connections. Telephone lines for hundreds of people are not working," Klychdurdiev says. "There is no point in getting an Internet connection if you don't have a properly functioning phone line."

Media rights groups say that many regional and international news sites -- including,, and -- as well as opposition websites remain blocked, just as they were during Niyazov's rule.

In its 2008 annual report, the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) put Turkmenistan on its list of world "Internet Enemies." The list comprises 15 countries -- including Iran, Zimbabwe, and North Korea -- which RSF says control and restrict Internet cafes and Internet service providers (ISPs).

The average Turkmen monthly salary is roughly $200. But home Internet access costs $42 for a startup charge plus a monthly fee of $8, in addition to $1 per hour for surfing on the net.

One Internet cafe customer in the Dashaguz region who was interviewed by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service remarked that "the Internet speed is so slow that it takes an hour just to check e-mail and send three or four letters."

Moreover, many Internet cafes are open only during working hours and are closed on weekends and public holidays. First-time Internet cafe visitors are also required to present their passports and write down their personal details to registered on the cafe's "users list."

Marketing Wrinkle?

Even if MTS is capable of providing faster Internet speed, Klychdurdiev says, "it may take some time until people actually hear about the offer because of the difficulty to get information in this country."

"People are not well informed about it," Klychdurdiev says of the offer. "Local newspapers or radios are not posting information about availability of the Internet connection."

Turkmen Telecom reportedly has a waiting list of 2,000 people seeking to get the Internet at home. But the state firm says it can only connect 20 new customers a day, blaming old equipment and a shortage of qualified technicians.

Whether MTS's new service beings to open up the free flow of information in Turkmenistan remains to be seen. For now, it remains another small sign of potentially major change in a country long regarded as one of the world's most closed societies.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report

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