By Armen Zakarian
Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian renewed on Saturday threats to strip ArmenTel of its controversial monopoly on telecommunication services, accusing the Greek-owned company of mismanaging Armenia’s mobile phone network.
Manukian charged that ArmenTel is “illegally” attracting new subscribers despite failing to expand the network capacity which was already stretched to its limits by stronger-than-expected consumer demand. He said the quality of cell phone communication has deteriorated further since the telecom operator resumed sales of its sough-after prepaid cards a week ago.
ArmenTel has already sold some 14,000 of its so-called “easycards” as part of a drive to double the number of its subscribers to 100,000 by the end of this year. Their sales were suspended six month ago as the network could no longer sustain a further increase in wireless communication. ArmenTel chief executive Nikos Georgoulas claimed last week that its capacity has since been bolstered.
But as most mobile phone users were to discover shortly afterwards, the quality of wireless services, already far from being satisfactory, declined further, with network expansion apparently lagging behind the increase in the number of new subscribers --- a fact stressed by Manukian. “ArmenTel is illegally selling thousands of easycards, while failing to carry out appropriate technical work,” he said in an interview with RFE/RL.
The minister claimed that ArmenTel’s Greek management is not implementing its decision last spring to invest $24 million in the company’s wireless division by the end of 2002. He warned that the Armenian government will consider revoking ArmenTel’s highly controversial monopoly if the subsidiary of Greece’s OTE telecom giant fails to fulfill its investment commitment. “Dozens of foreign companies are willing to enter our mobile phone market. But unfortunately, our [telecom] license doesn’t allow us to unilaterally strip ArmenTel of its monopoly,” he said.
According to Georgoulas, ArmenTel plans to channel $9 million in additional investments into the mobile phone sector by next January and another $25 million in the coming years.
Demand in the prepaid cards, more popular among Armenians than permanent subscription, by far exceeds their supply as evidenced by long lines formed outside ArmenTel’s selling points over the past ten days. The deficit, paradoxical for a market-based economy, has given rise to speculative trading in “easycards,” which cost $50 apiece on the black market. The price charged by ArmenTel is just $24. This includes a connection fee and 20 minutes of local phone calls.
OTE claims to have invested a total of over $130 million in the Armenian telecom sector since its takeover of ArmenTel in 1998. The Armenian government believes that the figure is grossly inflated, with Manukian repeatedly threatening to take the Greeks to the court.