By Karine Kalantarian
A Lebanese-owned firm will launch Armenia’s long-awaited second cellphone network on July 1, in a move which is expected to reduce prohibitive tariffs and dramatically increase the number of mobile phone users in the country.
Top executives of the K-Telecom operator said on Thursday that their VivaCell wireless unit will serve as an attractive alternative to ArmenTel, the unpopular telecommunications monopoly which has extraordinarily failed to meet local demand in mobile telephony.
“VivaCell will symbolize for the Armenian citizens a new era in telecommunications,” the company’s general manager, Ralph Yirikian, told reporters. “VivaCell will provide the Armenian population with choices which was lacking so far in the field of mobile communication.”
Yirikian added that the new network will initially cover Yerevan and surrounding regions in southern and central Armenia. “With each passing day, VivaCell will expand its network coverage to reach the whole territory of the Republic of Armenia, catering to more than 300,000 subscribers in less than three months from today,” he said.
ArmenTel had more than 200,000 subscribers at the beginning of this year and hoped to attract at least 100,000 others before the launch of the K-Telecom network. Earlier this month the company, which is owned by Greece’s OTE telecom giant, announced a major reduction in its mobile phone tariffs as part of the effort.
Still, ArmenTel continues to ration its pre-paid cellphone activation cards that have been in short supply ever since their introduction. The shortages gave rise to brisk speculative trading in such cards that were worth more than $100 apiece in the black market until recently.
The ArmenTel monopoly is widely blamed for the fact that Armenia has lagged behind neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia in the development of mobile telephony. The high cost and poor quality of the service led the Armenian government last year to renegotiate one of the key terms of ArmenTel’s 1998 sale to OTE which resulted in the partial liberalization of the market.
Meanwhile, it remains unclear how much the new wireless operator will charge its customers. Yirikian said the VivaCell fees will not be unveiled until June 28. “We will have different packages that would give our potential subscribers a choice,” he said.
K-Telecom was selected by the Armenian government as the second wireless operator on November 4 without a transparent and competitive bidding. The government has still not clearly explained why it avoided holding an international tender for the lucrative license. The Lebanese firm paid only $7 million to obtain it.
The K-Telecom owners also control the Karabakh-Telecom company that has run Nagorno-Karabakh’s telephone network since 2002. They claim to have already invested $75 million in Armenia and Karabakh.
(Photolur photo: Ralph Yirikian.)