By Karine Kalantarian
The government announced on Monday that it will unilaterally revoke the Greek-owned ArmenTel operator’s exclusive rights to mobile phone and Internet services in Armenia and open the market for competition within the next 40 days.
Justice Minister David Harutiunian said the decision was finally made after a non-binding ruling handed down last Friday by the head of a state body that tried to arbitrate between the government and ArmenTel.
The official, Eduard Muradian, endorsed the government allegations that the subsidiary of the Hellenic Telecommunication Organization (OTE) breached its contractual obligations and abused its legal monopoly on all telecom services in Armenia. Muradian said the government should change ArmenTel’s operating license to allow for more mobile phone operators and providers of Internet connection with the outside world.
The widely anticipated ruling has no legal force and can be ignored by the parties. Still, the government will use it to legitimize its punitive action that will not affect ArmenTel’s grip on fixed-line phone services.
“In the next 30 or 40 days we will enter a more intensive phase, and I think that the choice [of new mobile operators] will take another month or two,” Harutiunian told a news conference. “After that we will be able to expect development of our mobile phone network in less than six months.”
He also indicated that the local Internet service provides, who have long complained about the high cost of external connection, will be allowed to bypass ArmenTel in their operations.
ArmenTel’s Greek executives have not yet commented on Muradian’s ruling which followed week-long public hearings earlier this month. They have repeatedly rejected the government claims, saying that OTE has invested $182 million in the Armenian telecom market since its 1998 takeover of ArmenTel. They have also made it clear that a decision to strip the company of its exclusive rights will be fought by OTE at the London Court of International Arbitration.
However, the government’s top lawyer claimed on September 8 that Armenian courts have ultimate power to settle the festering dispute.
The latest developments may force OTE to speed up its stated plans to sell ArmenTel to another foreign investor. Harutiunian revealed that Russia’s Rostelecom giant and a Lebanese firm that owns Nagorno-Karabakh’s telephone network have been in talks with OTE over the possibility of “making investments in ArmenTel” for the past year.
“I don’t rule out that they will maintain their interest in the company,” he said, adding that the government has not yet negotiated with any prospective wireless operator.