Sorry, Turkey, we can't connect you: Robert Farish looks at how politics affects communications technology in the former Soviet republics

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The Independent Online
Ariane's failure last month to launch Turksat 1 (see below), the first in Turkey's national satellite programme, will be a blow to Turkey's plans to use the telephone to strengthen its influence in the Asian republics of the former Soviet Union.

The pounds 210m Turksat programme consists of two satellites (the second is still scheduled to launch at the end of 1994) and will have several purposes - from broadcasting in Turkish to the large ethnic Turkish populations in Western Europe to reconnaissance applications to give the Turkish army an edge over the PKK, the Kurdish rebel movement operating in the country's Eastern border areas. However its main goal was to provide telecommunications services to the huge, sparsely populated regions of eastern Turkey and central Asia.

In its promotions literature the Turkish PTT (the government department responsible for telecommunications) says it plans to provide international links to each of the Asian republics of the former USSR, making Ankara the telecommunications hub of the whole region.

Turkey regards itself as the natural candidate to fill the power vacuum in central Asia following the break up of the Soviet Union. In this it has the active support of Western nations which view the country as an essential counterweight to increased Iranian influence.

Who controls international telephone access is of great political importance in these isolated countries. In much of the former Soviet Union the telephone system was appalling, and in central Asia it was especially bad. Anyone wishing to call abroad could only do so by making a booking - which could take more than a day. All calls had to go via Moscow, which meant Russia controlled the sole means of communication with the outside world. Acting as if it were simply dealing with a bad customer, the Russian Ministry of Communications cut off Georgia from the international exchange last autumn for a week for not paying its bills.

In 1991 the state-owned Turkish company Netas installed digital switches in Baku, Azerbaijan and in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan. It also had talks with the Azerbaijani authorities on establishing a telephone manufacturing plant in Baku. What it offered was a highly subsided international connection with the world in return for Turkey controlling it.

At the end of 1991 the Turkish PTT said it would invest up to dollars 100m in each of the republics and provide each with a small local telephone exchange and a satellite base station. The following year satellites dishes were taken by road and delivered to each of the republics. In each case the governments of these countries were asked for no money and the service was to be paid for by income collected from calls. The satellite antennae were former US military dishes.

The latest piece of the jigsaw fell into place last December. The Georgian Ministry of Communications signed a contract with the Turkish firm, Deletash, on the construction of telephone exchanges in the towns of Kobuleti and Poti and, more importantly, the creation a microwave link through Georgia which would connect Turkey to Turkmenistan. In common with previous agreements the dollars 5m cost of the project will be paid from Georgian tariff incomes.

The political significance of the deals lies in the technology being used. All calls must first travel to Ankara in Turkey, where they are then switched and dispatched to anywhere in the world. This is because the telephone exhanges installed in the Asian replublics cannot handle international calls themselves. Connected in this way, the countries of central Asia become part of the Turkish national telephone system. This system currently uses an international communications satellite called Intelsat. Turksat will enable Turkey to decrease its reliance on what limited space it has on Intelsat and take total control over routing central Asian calls.

Control over the switching of calls means that Turkey also benefits from all revenues from billing incoming international calls to central Asia. It is in this area that the real profits are to be made in connecting the world to the former Soviet Union to the world (there are far more rich people wanting to call central Asia than people in the region rich enough to ring out).

The launch of Turksat 1 was already two years late because of financing and contractual problems. Although it was insured, because there was no back up satellite there will now be a delay of two to four years for a new satellite to be built and a launch window found. The loss of Turksat 1 and ensuing delays could put the telephone scheme in jeopardy. While the Turkish PTT is delayed yet again, others have been making deals. Japanese- owned NEC and the Japanese PTT have now established and operating satellite link in Uzbekistan, undermining the effectiveness of the Turkish project. From last year the US-based IDB International Communications has offered services to and from Baku in Azerbaijan.

Interestingly, Iran has chosen not to join the telephone battlefield. Instead, it sees the struggle as religious rather than technical and is attempting to extend its influence in the region by sending mullahs rather than satellites.

Robert Farish is the editor of 'Computer Business Russia' in Moscow. Tel: (7095) 265 4214 Fax: (7095) 261 7910 e-mail: farish@glas. apc. org