Armenia – Telephone today and in Soviet times… UPDATED

Beeline and VivaCell-MTS telecommunications companies together claim to have over 2,6 million mobile subscribers. Adding to that the army of over 650 thousand fixed-line phone subscribers in Armenia, we will have an impressive figure, roughly equal to that of official population data for Armenia:  3 million 239 thousand.

The numbers for mobile phone subscribers by the abovementioned telecom companies, should be taken with some caution of course. Vivacell-MTS, for one thing, was too eager to claim it has 80% mobile user market share launching a massive marketing campaign about having 2 million mobile subscribers.

Some time ago @kpearce – one of my mostly-online-friends, asked to fill in a questionnaire about telephone in Soviet times and these days. Looking back at those answers made me realize just how far forward we have moved today. So I decided to publish some of those questions and answers, that you might find interesting, amusing or nostalgic.

Q: Discuss the telephone in Soviet times. How did people use the phone? What were the attitudes toward the phone?

A: My family didn’t have a landline phone in Soviet times. Two of our neighbors on the same building had it – so when someone wanted to call my parents, they’d call one of the two neighbors. The neighbor would tell them to stay on the line, would walk two floors down to our apartment and call my mom or dad upstairs to take the call.

There was a monthly subscription fee. There were neither charges, nor limits on how many minutes you could call. The service was bad – you’d often hear several people talking on the same line, it was hard to make inter-city calls. Calls to other Soviet Republics were done through an operator.

The general attitude was – call as much as you like, want and can. People would hang out on the phone line talking for hours.

In the early post-Soviet period, during the hard times, how were phones used? What were the attitudes toward the phone?

There wasn’t much change in attitudes, except that the service got much worse, because, at least in Gyumri where I lived, there was no money to do repairs. Getting a phone line installed to your house became a matter of luxury, because the managers of the state-owned telecommunications company tried to take advantage and asked for bribes for literally everything – from granting permission to subscribe, to the installation process itself. It used to cost up to $300 US to install phone line – which was an astronomical amount, given the fact that an average salary was close to $15-$20. It stayed like that till 1998-99, if I recall correctly.

The attitude – it was a luxury, and if you had it – you had to make full use of it. There were of course no mobile phones yet. My family had moved to a new temporary house after the apartment house building where we used to live was pulled down, as it had been heavily damaged by the earthquake of 1988.

Here, too, our neighbor had a fixed-line phone (being a relative of a telephone company official, they had it installed hassle free, without much bribing anybody). Everybody on our street used to make phone calls and received them from that neighbor’s house…

Do you recall the first time that you saw mobile phones in Armenia? What did you think about the people that used them? What year was this approximately? Do you remember how much a mobile phone cost at this time? How much were minutes?

Having studied in U.S. in 1995-96, I came back to Armenia with certain ideas about pagers and mobile phones. However, I didn’t get to see a mobile phone here till 1999. It was a subscription based phone – one of the rare few in Gyumri (they said the mayor of Gyumri had it, the region’s governor and the rector of Gyumri state institute). I used to work for a Foundation which was established by Ex-Prime Minister Armen Darbinian. The director of the foundation had the mobile phone, but it was registered on Darbinian’s name. The subscription cost $100 per month + 100 drams per-minute charge. I got to carry it a couple of times – sticking to the belt of my pants, and felt like the most important person in Gyumri :D

Do you remember when the first pay-as-you-go mobile phone cards became available?

I can’t recall exact dates (Google it), but it wasn’t before 2003, I’m pretty sure. It was marketed as ‘Easy Card’. The name stuck. Even today pay-as-you-go cards of competing brand – Vivacell, called Allo card, is often referred to as an ‘Easy Card’.

Do you remember the events surrounding greater adoption of mobile phones, what were they?

Introduction of pay-as-you-go cards did it. As soon as they released the Armentel’s Easy Cards, they were sold out. There were cues at the distribution centers. Armentel introduced pre-registration for selling cards. Still, the demand was much greater. The Easy Card, costing something like 17,000 AMD (less than $50), was sold by speculative-traders for $200-250. The so called “gold numbers” – numbers with repetitive or consecutive digits, became a matter of special value and pride.

Do you remember what year this was? Do you remember how much a mobile phone cost at this time? How much were minutes?

A modest Siemens/Nokia mobile phone cost somewhere between $100-$200. A minute of call on pay-as-you-go was something like 250 AMD – although it’s hard to recall exactly. The subscription based phones had a 80 dram-per-minute charge. All I can say – it was ridiculously expensive.

What do you remember about VivaCell’s entrance into the mobile phone market?

First it was only speculations, that it’s the K-telecom (Karabakh Telecom), and they’re coming with President’s open ticket (Ex-president Kocharian is from Karabakh), and that they’re going to beat Armentel in service and everything. They did it indeed – but more thanks to excellent service. Their entry into the market immediately reduced bloated costs for subscription based and pay-as-you-go cards, as well as minutes. They sold hundreds and thousands of phone-cards in the first year of entry. Their entry also cased a dramatic rise in the cost of mobile handsats – as everybody had a card now and all of tham wanted a mobile phone to go with the card. VivaCell’s entry resulted in the creation of the monopoly to the imports of mobile phones into Armenia. There were rumors, that President Kocharian’s son was the person who took over mobile phone importing business.

What do you remember about Armentel becoming Beeline and its entrance into the mobile phone market?

Nothing much. It came at a point, when Russian’s were buying all kinds of infrastructure in Armenia, so I just remember going paranoid about Russian’s owning everything in Armenia from gas, electricity to communication infrastructures.

What kinds of people use different kinds of handsets? Who uses the feature-rich phones? What do you think motivates people to buy feature-rich phones?

I’ll answer for myself. I carry two very basic mobile phones – one for Beeline – provided and paid for from work, the other – a personal one – Vivacell (Nokia 6230, Nokia 5070), and a Dell Axim X50 PDA device. The PDA is for storing contacts, files, accessing internet. The phone is – for calling people. I don’t really like very feature rich phones, because the batteries die quickly. I also make a lot of business calls – and while talking to a person on one of the Nokias, I take notes on the PDA. I’m really sorry the age of PDA’s is gone and am constantly thinking what should I replace it with – a real smartphone – something like the Palm Pre or a Google Android device, or a netbook?

I know, that its particularly the young people – students, who like to carry fancy phones. It’s seen something like being fashionable, I guess.

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