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By Anush Dashtents

Armenia’s Greek-owned telecommunications monopoly announced on Wednesday a major push to expand its mobile phone network, saying that it expects to double the number of users by the end of the year.

The ArmenTel operator plans to achieve the increase mainly through the sales of more prepaid phone cards which will resume on Thursday. Top company executives said they hope to attract as many as 50,000 new mobile phone subscribers in the coming weeks.

ArmenTel had to suspend sales of its so-called “easycards” six months ago amid stronger-than-expected consumer demand. Telecom officials say the network would not have sustained a further increase in their number of subscribers which tripled to 45,000 last year in a matter of three months and currently exceeds 50,000. ArmenTel says it has expanded the network capacity since then.

Despite incurring higher per-minute charges ($0.35), the easycard system has proved much more popular with Armenians because it does not require a fixed monthly subscription fee of $18 which is paid by regular users. The per-minute rate for the latter is $0.15.

ArmenTel’s executive director, Nikos Georgoulas, told reporters that the subsidiary of the Hellenic Telecommunications Organization (OTE), Greece’s largest telecom firm, is ready to boost network capacity further to 200,000 numbers in the beginning of next year if there is additional consumer demand.

OTE claims to have invested over $100 million in the Armenian telecom sector since its controversial takeover of ArmenTel in 1998. Of that, only $11 million has gone to its extremely lucrative mobile phone division. Georgoulas admitted that the company has failed to keep pace with growing local demand, which is why the quality of cell phone connection in Armenia still leaves much to be desired. “The demand has overwhelmed the quality,” the Greek CEO said.

An ArmenTel plan envisages to channel $9 million in additional investments into the sector by next January and another $25 million in the coming years. The company, which is a target of frequent attacks from local politicians and the media, promises to purchase and install 48 radio transmitters across the country in the next three months. Half of them will be installed in central Yerevan, the network’s busiest segment.

Georgoulas said ArmenTel managers did not expect that 70 percent of cell phone calls will be made from and to the city center.
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