Armenia’s Main Cellphone Network Paralyzed

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Armenia’s Greek-owned telecommunications monopoly claimed on Monday to have so far failed to fully determine the cause of an almost three-week mysterious paralysis of its wireless network which has left hundreds of thousands of mobile phone users fuming.

The Armenian government–meanwhile–appeared to be losing patience with ArmenTel’s inability to remedy the situation quickly–with officials speaking of "sanctions" that could be imposed on the deeply unpopular operator.

The network’s sudden collapse began on July 1–coinciding with the long-awaited launch of Armenia’s second wireless system–VivaCell. ArmenTel promptly flew in telecom engineers from Greece and Germany to inspect its facilities but has still not provided a full and clear explanation for the breakdown.

ArmenTel’s Thursday statement cited a "flurry of phone calls" which it said followed a steep reduction of phone tariffs effective from July 1 and put the network under greater strain. The statement urged the increasingly furious subscribers to use their handsets more sparingly.

Critics say ArmenTel–which is owned by Greece’s OTE telecom giant–is paying the price of its gross underinvestment in mobile telephony that has left Armenia lagging behind neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia where the service has been more affordable and of higher quality.

The Armenian government demanded official explanations from ArmenTel earlier this month and assured the public that everything is done to get the cellphone back into shape. Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian announced on Thursday that the problem will be solved within days.

"It’s hard for me to speak about this," Manukian said on Monday with a sigh. "I am now in an awkward situation. I [wrongly] stated that the situation improved and the crisis is coming to an end."

The quality of mobile phone service provided by ArmenTel left much to be desired even before the unprecedented network failure. It was the main reason why the government decided to partly open the sector to competition last year.

Exclusive rights to all forms of telecommunication were a key term of ArmenTel’s 1998 sale to OTE–one of Europe’s largest telecom firms. Some former government officials who helped to negotiate the $200 million deal later admitted that granting the Greeks the monopoly was a serious mistake.

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