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Eastern Europe: Consumers Wait Three Years For Phone Lines

London, 5 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- A report published yesterday says consumers in the Eastern countries can expect to wait an average of three years for a telephone connection. This compares with an average waiting time of less than one month in the European Union countries.

The latest Economic Transition report by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) says between one and eight percent of the populations of the Eastern countries are on a waiting list for network access but the real demand is probably "considerably higher."

The size of a country's telephone network is typically measured by the number of telephone lines relative to the size of the population -- something known as the "network penetration rate."

The report says that the network penetration rate in the Central and Eastern European countries, the Baltic states and the CIS nations is only between one-quarter and one-half of those in the European Union.

A chart published by the International Telecommunications Union shows considerable nation-by-nation variation.

At the bottom of the scale, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyszstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia have between 5 and 10 phone lines per 100 of population. In the middle, Ukraine, Russia, Armenia and Belarus have between 25 and 30 lines. The number one slot is filled by Bulgaria with almost 35 telephone lines per 100 of population.

Bulgaria was a major supplier of telecommunications equipment within the former Soviet-dominated trading area, and embarked on a major expansion of telecommunications under central planning.

Bulgaria still lags a long way behind the EU countries, which have an average of almost 50 phone lines per 100 of population.

Most Eastern countries in economic transition are investing in the expansion of their telecommunications network. The countries with the largest investment relative to their gross national product are those that have pursued a commercial approach to the sector.

These countries have either opened telecommunications to private sector participation, as in the Czech Republic, Estonia and Hungary, or have strengthened the commercial orientation of their public utilities, such as Croatia, Macedonia, Poland and Slovenia.

Phone networks inherited from the Soviet era are, of course, burdened with a high percentage of outmoded equipment and high fault rates. In the Eastern countries where data is available, the average was 45 faults per 100 main lines in 1994, compared with 13 in the EU.

The recorded fault rates in the region, however, range widely from 10 in Latvia to 95 in Romania.

The best way to increase service quality is through the installation of digital exchanges. The extent to which main lines are connected to digital exchanges is rapidly increasing in some countries with several, such as Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia, reaching two-thirds of the EU average.

The report says the development of cellular telephone networks in transition economies provides an example of customers' willingness to pay for quick access to reliable services. This willingness is particularly true of businesses and high-income households.

The penetration of costly cellular telephone networks in transition economies is still relatively small, but the growth rate in the number of subscribers is still considerable in some countries. In Estonia, Hungary and Slovenia, network penetration rates have already reached levels which approach those in Belgium, France and Spain.