More solid growth marks Tajikistan's mobile market but take-up of internet still lags badly
Note: This report has had a statistical update in November 2013 bringing most information up to end-2012 and some to mid-2013. There has also been some additional information added to the text.
Tajikistan's mobile sector has been growing strongly for over a decade and is the standout feature of the country's telecom industry. Mobile penetration passed the 90% milestone in 2012 and the mobile subscriber base was continuing on a positive growth path in 2013. The launch of 3G mobile services in Tajikistan has also provided an optimistic note in the telecom market place. However, overall the telecom sector has continued to struggle. With one of the lowest fixed-line teledensities in the region (around 6% in 2012), at least the market was continuing to grow, although only at a modest rate. Fixed internet connections are also extremely low; however, but an expanding internet user population was a positive sign for the country's future. This has been helped by the increasingly widespread presence of mobile internet services.
When the Soviet Union collapsed Tajikistan's telecommunications infrastructure was arguably the least developed of all the former Soviet republics. With a telecom network that was near to totally dysfunctional, the government inherited the daunting task of bringing it up to modern standards. Apart from its outmoded and poorly maintained infrastructure, a succession of natural disasters causing damage to plant and equipment further undermined the integrity of the network.
The Tajikistan government announced its National Program of Communications Development in the mid-1990s. This was aimed particularly at the modernisation and development of communications throughout the country. Specifically it included plans to privatise communications, broadcasting and television to attract foreign investors, although the state was expected to remain a major shareholder.
The ambitious plan began to be implemented within the context of a traditional regulatory and operating structure. The Ministry of Communications (MOC) was made responsible for providing all public communications, including local, national and international telephone services, as well as postal services, TV and radio broadcasting. As part of a long-term program, the MOC aimed to build a national communications system to world standards. The government also laid out plans to ultimately transfer all responsibilities from the MOC to a new independent regulatory authority which duly happened. The Communications Regulatory Agency (CRA) now has responsibility for regulating the telecom sector.
The government indicated there would be a transition period leading up to privatisation of Tajiktelecom in 2004 and liberalisation of the local and international long-distance switched telephony sector in 2006. As part of the privatisation strategy, a substantial number of private operators were allowed to enter the telecom market after 1996, notably in the mobile and internet sectors. In fact, telecommunications has become one of the most dynamically developing sectors within the Tajikistan economy. Although still inadequate, its contribution to the county's GDP has been actively growing, as new and diversified technologies were quickly becoming the norm. The privatisation of Tajiktelecom has, however, been subject to a series of delays.
The state-owned incumbent operator, Tajiktelecom, continues to maintain a major presence in the market, providing local, long-distance and international telephone services throughout the country. In addition, seven mobile operators had been licensed as well as more than 10 Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
Note: It is pointed out that there are considerable inconsistencies with the market statistics available for Tajikistan as well as the total absence of statistics for some indicators
By 2012 mobiles in Tajikistan had reached just over 90% penetration, with subscriber growth continuing to run at a reasonably strong annual rate; Overall mobile subscriber numbers had increased by a factor of almost 40 in just seven years; The growth rate peaked over that period when in 2007 Tajikistan's mobile subscriber numbers expanded at an annual rate of almost 200%; Four mobile operators were granted 3G licences and had subsequently launched networks; Initially demand for 3G services was low, but the market expanded rapidly through 2012 and into 2013; Fixed-line penetration in Tajikistan was low, with this market remaining a sluggish growth area; Although up to date official figures were not available, by 2012 the conversion of the country's fixed network from analogue appeared to have achieved a digital level in excess of 90% and the country was well on the way to achieving its 100% target; Tajikistan's internet usage has been expanding quickly, with reports suggesting internet user penetration of around 15% by 2012; However, the actual number of internet subscribers remained relatively low; Fixed broadband internet access was virtually non-existent, although mobile broadband was growing quickly; In 2012 Sweden's TeliaSonera attracted criticism for abetting an authoritarian regime' with its operations in Tajikistan.