Despite underdeveloped services, Turkmenistan's telecoms sector has been steadfastly expanding in recent years, with a new report from Research & Markets showing that the country's teledensity rate doubled between Q108 and Q109.
Turkmenistan's telecommunications services are considered to be the least developed of all the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries. Poor growth in the country’s telecom services can be attributed to the slow development of the private sector and state control over most economic activities. The state-owned Turkmen Telecom has been the primary provider of public telephone, email and Internet services, and through a subsidiary has also been operating a GSM mobile network in competition with a private mobile operator, Barash Communications Technologies (BCT).
However, a report from Research & Markets reveals that the telecom market in this poor and predominantly rural country has been boldly expanding in recent years; although combined fixed-line and mobile teledensity was estimated at a fairly low 33% in early 2009, this figure was double that of 12 months earlier. Not surprisingly it has been the mobile services that have been dominating the expansion activity. In 2008 the country saw a 143% annual subscription growth. As a consequence, Turkmenistan, one of the smallest markets in the region, saw its mobile penetration jump from 8% to almost 20% in one year. The growth rate was continuing to run at more than 100% in 2009.
However, the global financial crisis took its toll on operator revenues across 2008/09, with BCT reporting that Turkmenistan’s monthly ARPU had fallen more than 70% to less than 10 by Q408. The fall was mainly due to the Central Bank of Turkmenistan changing the exchange rate for the Turkmenistani manat (TMM) from 5,200 to the US dollar in December 2007 to 14,250 in May 2008. In local currency terms, BCT’s ARPU fell 24%, from TMM250 in the fourth quarter of 2007 to TMM189 in the fourth quarter of 2008, because of the further dilution of its customer base with the increased level of subscriptions.
The Internet sector’s growth was seriously stifled in 2000 when the four existing independent ISPs were forced out of business following the government’s decision to grant Turkmen Telecom a monopoly over data services. Government policy demanded tight control over all communications in the country; the abrupt closure of the ISPs was a result of this. Internet access was severely restricted, with the few Internet cafes that existed in Ashgabat closing down in 2002. In early 2007, after two decades of repression, the incoming president, Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, announced that the government had re-opened Internet cafes in the capital Ashgabat and was set to follow this move in regional centres. One hour of computer time costs about US$4, however, a high price in a country where two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line and the average monthly income is less than US$100. It remains unclear how far these reforms would go.
Key findings of the report:
- By early 2009 mobile penetration in Turkmenistan was still relatively low, having just passed the 25% penetration milestone;
- However, in the previous few year growth had been outstanding, with mobile subscriber numbers increasing by 143% in 2008 alone;
- The country's mobile subscriber base was still expanding at an annual rate of more than 100% in 2009 and was likely to hit 2 million subscribers by year-end;
- Fixed-line penetration in Turkmenistan has almost reached 10% by early 2009 and was the fixed market looked to continue growing at an annual rate of 10%;
- Although no updated official figures were not available, progress on converting the country's fixed network from analogue was slow and by 2009 it was still well short of the 100% target;
- Although Internet growth in the country has been hindered by severe government controls, the apparent easing of restrictions since 2007 was expected to see a lift in Turkmenistan's Internet usage; again, it was hard to confirm this with the limited official figures available;
- There were no reports of Broadband Internet access having been provided in Turkmenistan.