Summer 1994 (2.2)
Strides in Telephone Service
by Kurultay Gözütok
When I first arrived in Azerbaijan for the first time in 1989, I made an appointment with a government official and was amazed to see four separate telephone sets on his desk. Furthermore, I discovered that each of them was connected to a different telephone network. None interconnected; subscribers of one network could not access the others.
In this case, the four networks included (1) the normal public network, (2) the national security network, (3) a network connecting state governmental offices throughout the entire Soviet Union and (4) a system connecting the governmental offices within the Republic of Azerbaijan. Obviously, although technology existed to link these different systems, separate networks had been created to meet the strict security requirements of the Soviet Union.
Later on, I would discover that there were even more than these four networks in Azerbaijan as numerous private networks existed, all of which were operating more efficiently than the public system. For example, many top government officials have 8 or 9 phones on their desk. The President's assistant mans 19 separate telephones.
In terms of the number of phones per capita, I found Azerbaijan ranked high. There were 8.5 subscriber lines (density) per 100 people which was higher than the world average. However, in terms of quality, the system was far below average.
The telephone exchanges in use in the public network were antiquated, some dating back to very early technology. The newest equipment in operation probably was not more recent than the 50s. At least 40% were of the "step-by-step" exchange type, a technology of the early 1900s. Another 50% were the X-bar (cross-bar) exchanges of the electro-mechanic type invented in the 1920s. Needless to say, all kinds of practical problems arose whenever you tried to use the phones.
For example, four years ago, it would have been impossible anywhere in the entire Soviet Union for the ordinary citizen to dial internationally unassisted by an operator. There were direct lines to Moscow and, theoretically, from there you could dial out; but, in reality, it was impossible. It never happened. Even automatic dialing throughout Azerbaijan except in the local city network was very limited.
One of the most frustrating problems was in reaching your intended party. Wrong numbers were incredibly frequent. Call completion rate in some areas was not more than 20%, that is, only one call in five, on average, reached its rightful destination.
Finally, when parties did connect, invariably they would be interrupted by another line intruding on theirs. You could clearly hear, and even participate in the conversation of other parties as they could yours.
The line was so cluttered with noise that you had to shout just to be heard. Electrical signals could be heard on the communication path, the meanings of which nobody could identify.
Telephones Perceived as Free
However, despite these incredible difficulties, the phones enjoyed high usage. The simple reason being that they hardly paid anything for its use (See Turyalay in Azerbaijan International, "Cost of Living," Winter 1994, 18). The government subsidized this service, making the cost to the customer so low that it was perceived as free. Though Westerners often complain about how their teenagers use the phone, the Azerbaijanis had even more reason to talk about it. One frequently heard about and invariably encountered people reading and commenting on books and novels for hours over the phone. Simply, the telephone was viewed as a social service rather than an infrastructural facility which should be used only as necessary.
New Changes to the Telephone System
In the past three years, especially 1993, attitudes in Azerbaijan have started to change as the telecommunication system improves. Government authorities have realized the significance of telecommunications as a prerequisite for free market economies and have initiated investment plans to upgrade the telecommunication infrastructure to world standards as quickly as possible.
The following changes are occurring:
· Since greater availability exists through the Public Network, private networks are being used less frequently although they still exist.
· A number of antiquated telephone exchanges have already been replaced by modern DMS (Digital Multiplexing System-a well-known type of digital telephone exchange patented by Northern Telecom of Canada). This provided full automatic International access to the world. Azerbaijan was the first of the 15 Republics to connect with an international automatic dialing system (October 91). For foreign business, this means offices can easily direct dial to and from their home base. Call completion rates in these new digital telephone exchanges approaches 90%.
The Role of Netash
Netas has recently won a government contract that will put into service a larger International Gateway telephone exchange in 1994 and greatly increasing the capacity of connections to the rest of the world.
In March this year, Motorola introduced a modern mobile telephone exchange for 1,000 subscribers in Baku. Plans exist to extend this service to the rest of Azerbaijan shortly.
Currently plans are being worked out to achieve the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) average of 30 percent telephone density (30 lines per 100 capita) by the year 2000. (OECD is an international organization of 24 countries including the USA, UK, Turkey, Canada, Germany, France, etc.)
With the introduction of modern telephone exchanges, the capability will exist to meter every call on a timed basis which will result in more realistic tariffs. No doubt, the long conversational habits of Azerbaijanis will gradually change towards that of the world average.
Although Azerbaijan has far to go in terms of modernizing its telecommunication systems, the progress it has made in the last couple of years is incredible and, as such, places it in a leadership position in the field of telecommunications among the former USSR Republics. It must be added that all of this has been done, despite the fact, that there has been severe economical and social drawbacks as well as an ongoing restructuring process throughout the entire country.
Kurultay Gozutok is General Director of ULTEL (Ulduz Telekom-Azerbaijan) and is involved with the production of Digital Rural telephone exchanges in Baku, Azerbaijan.
From Azerbaijan International (2.2) Summer 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.