In a surprising move, the State Communications Service, the main regulator of the telecommunications sector in Tajikistan, has announced that it will allow two mobile operators, MegaFon Tajikistan and Tcell, to access the internet through international channels instead of relying on the state-run data center, known as EKTs.
The decision, which was made public last weekend, is expected to improve the quality and speed of the internet service in the country, which has been severely compromised by the monopoly of EKTs, operated by the joint-stock company Tojiktelecom.
Tojiktelecom, which is run by the State Communications Service, has been the sole provider of international internet connectivity in Tajikistan since 2016, when it launched the EKTs project with the ostensible purpose of enhancing the security and control of the internet traffic.
However, critics have argued that the EKTs has been used to censor and block access to websites and social media platforms that are deemed undesirable by the authorities, as well as to throttle the data speeds and charge high fees to local internet service providers (ISPs) and competitor mobile operators.
According to the latest data from Ookla, a global leader in internet testing and analysis, Tajikistan ranks 176th out of 180 countries in terms of fixed broadband speed, with an average download speed of 16.74 Mbps, and 159th out of 165 countries in terms of mobile speed, with an average download speed of 9.61 Mbps.
The situation is even worse in rural areas, where more than 70 percent of the population lives, and where only outdated 2G mobile connections are available, covering 95 percent of the country’s territory.
The poor quality and high cost of the internet service in Tajikistan have hampered the development of the digital economy and the access to information and education, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced many people to work and study from home.
The State Communications Service, which is headed by Beg Sabur, a relative by marriage of President Emomali Rahmon, has not explained the reasons behind its decision to loosen the monopoly of EKTs, but some analysts have suggested that it may be related to the pressure from the international community and the expectations of joining the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Tajikistan, which is the only Central Asian country that is not a member of the WTO, has been negotiating its accession since 2001, and has faced several challenges, including the need to reform its telecommunications sector and to privatize Tojiktelecom, the national operator.
The move to allow MegaFon Tajikistan and Tcell, which are the two largest mobile operators in the country, with a combined market share of over 80 percent, to bypass EKTs and to source internet data directly from abroad, could be seen as a step towards liberalizing the sector and attracting more investors.
However, some experts have warned that the decision may not have a significant impact on the overall situation, as the majority of the ISPs and mobile operators will still depend on EKTs, and as the state will still retain the power to monitor and censor the internet traffic.
Moreover, some observers have questioned the timing and the transparency of the decision, noting that it was made without any public consultation or announcement, and that it coincided with the recent protests in the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan, where the authorities shut down the internet access for several days.
The Human Rights Watch, a global watchdog organization, has condemned the internet shutdown in Gorno-Badakhshan, calling it a “serious violation of the right to freedom of expression and access to information” and urging the Tajik authorities to “restore access to the internet without any further delays.”
The State Communications Service has not commented on the allegations of internet censorship and shutdown, nor has it provided any details on the implementation and the duration of its decision to allow MegaFon Tajikistan and Tcell to access the internet independently from EKTs.
The two mobile operators have also not issued any official statements on the matter, but some sources have reported that they have already started to offer improved internet service to their customers, with faster speeds and lower prices.
Customers, however, have expressed mixed reactions to the news, with some welcoming the change and hoping for more competition and innovation in the sector, and others remaining skeptical and doubtful about the real benefits and the sustainability of the decision.