By Shakeh Avoyan
Hundreds of owners and employees of Armenian firms providing external phone connection over the Internet rallied in Yerevan on Monday in protest against a government decision that upheld the national telecommunication operator’s monopoly on the popular service.
The Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC) ruled on January 8 that the ArmenTel operator can restrict or even block altogether competitors’ access to the so-called IP telephony. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians use the service to make phone calls abroad at prices that are much lower the fees charged by ArmenTel for regular phone connection.
The PSRC’s decision went into force on Friday, leaving scores of small service providers, which have mushroomed in recent years, to face closure or, at best, an uncertain future. They consider the ban unjust and illegal, arguing that they were for years allowed to operate by the Ministry of Transport and Communications.
Several hundred people working for those companies marched to President Robert Kocharian’s official residence to demand the resignation of Robert Nazarian, chairman of the PSRC. “About two hundred companies across the republic are facing a ban on their operations, and about three thousand people risk losing their jobs,” an organizer of the protest, Artem Khachatrian of the Dashink company, told RFE/RL.
The demonstration followed a lawsuit against the state regulator that was jointly filed by the affected firms late last week.
The PSRC insists that ArmenTel is entitled to the monopoly under the terms of a 1998 operating license that gave the company exclusive rights to all forms of telecommunication in Armenia. Its previous Greek owner, OTE, for years insisted that the Internet phone providers are operating illegally and that ArmenTel is incurring millions of dollars in losses as a result.
The regulatory body upheld ArmenTel’s monopoly on IP telephony only after OTE sold its 90 percent share in the company to Russia’s second largest mobile phone operator, VimpelCom. The decision came less than a month after VimpelCom agreed to abandon all other exclusive rights enjoyed by ArmenTel. That included a controversial legal monopoly on Armenia’s Internet access to the outside world. The new ArmenTel owner also pledged to give up its exclusive grip on IP telephony before the end of this year.
PSRC officials have assured the Internet phone providers that they will therefore eventually be able to resume their activities. But most of them fear that several months of stoppage will be enough time to force them out of business.