Broadband in Central Asia and the Caucasus: It’s a Political World

Wed, 09/09/2009 - 6:22am
by Steve Wilson

Editor's Note: should we form a world body to oversee broadband development? What about day-to-day management of the internet? Turning the web into a global resource would have its pluses and minuses, and I'm not sure the gains would be worth the losses.

Steve WilsonAlthough there are some significant variations and investment in new networks, fixed broadband penetration in Central Asia and the Caucasus remains low. One factor holding back development has been political. Many of these countries are dictatorships or at best deeply flawed democracies. The question is whether such regimes want citizens to have access to broadband and the window onto the world it can provide.

Recent events in Iran demonstrate very clearly how important the Internet has become for communicating a political message to the outside world. It seems to me perfectly fair to say a non-democratic regime would not be too keen on its citizens having access to social networks. This is because of the power they give to citizens to form groupings and exchange opinions very quickly. At the same time, of course, governments find themselves in a dilemma because they want the economic benefits and resulting stability that highly computer literate populations can bring.

As a result of fears of growing independence amongst citizens many of the countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus have imposed censorship and filtering of the Internet. For example, in Azerbaijan two citizens were recently arrested for – sources have told me - their blog postings. In Georgia press reports indicate that Internet connectivity was lost at a time when there were demonstrations against the government of Mikheil Saakashvili. Kazakhstan has also recently adopted a law meaning that local as well as foreign websites can be blocked. One consequence of these actions is to make the Internet a less attractive proposition for potential customers hindering growth in subscription numbers.

Governments in these countries are keen to maintain as much political control as possible. To this end, privatization of fixed-line incumbents has been faltering, although Armenia and Georgia have sold off government stakes. Dictatorial regimes would be loath to cede power to any outside influence and in addition any opportunities for the financial milking of state assets would be limited. Government employees such as those of a fixed-line telephony incumbent are also likely to be more easily coerced into voting for the existing regime in any flawed elections. As such insiders in countries such as Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan have indicated to me that they consider any privatisation to be a long way away. Of course, privatisation is no panacea, but the experience of Georgia demonstrates how it can help.

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