By Atom Markarian
Armenians very soon will be forced to pay 4 drams per minute for local telephone calls. A per-minute payment system will be introduced only for digitalized telephone lines. Although several high ranking government officials, including the Minister of Transport and Communication, have said they will not allow Armentel to introduce the pay-per-minute system, there is no sign that the board of shareholders of Armenian Telecom Company Armentel is going to reverse its decision to start charging local phone calls by pay-per-minute system from September 1.
Armentel spokeswoman Hasmik Chutilian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that no one has the authority to change the decision taken by the company's board of directors. Only the board can change its decision, but there is no indication that the board wants to convene an extraordinary session to examine the situation.
Armentel promised to make concessions for individual telephone users. The company said that the first 120-minutes of local calls will be free of charge for individual customers, if they continue to pay the monthly basic fee of 900 drams ($1.6). The average monthly salary in Armenia is $42.
Critics of Armentel say that the fixed payment system is even more expensive than the pay-per-minute system, because in that case individual customers will end up paying 7.5 drams for per-minute local phone call. Critics also say that the fixed payment is very good for Armentel, because tens of thousands of Armenians who are absent from the country for months will still continue to pay their fixed telephone fees.
Armentel was also criticized for discriminating against digital line users, because according to the new payment system, the company will not introduce pay-per-minute system for analog phone users. The analog phone users will not be charged for local phone calls. Armentel said that digitalized lines give customers quality and good service, and that is why they are charged more.
The Armenian government has criticized Armentel for not meeting fully its contractual obligations to invest and modernize telecommunications. The government says that Armentel inflated the scale of its investments by accounting some current expenses as investment. Armentel also undertook to digitalize telephone lines in 800 villages in Armenia's border regions, but digital phone lines were installed only in 130 villages. The government also says that almost 250 villages have no telephone lines at all.
Armenia hardly will try to press charges against Armentel in an international court since it does not have enough financial resources to cover the expensive fees of international lawyers. The Armenian government also has no strong motive to pursue the case in the international arbitration, because the provisions of the agreement signed between Armenia and Greek Telecommunication Company OTE in 1998 are fluid and could be interpreted in different ways.