Trend's exclusive interview with the Minister of Communications and High Technologies of Azerbaijan Ramin Guluzade.
- What is remarkable about the development of the communications sector in Azerbaijan? What are the challenges facing the industry in the short term, given the transition of the country to non-oil export-oriented economy?
- Azerbaijan is the most dynamically developing country of the region, and the economic development covers all areas. The sustainable development of the information and communication technologies sector is an integral part of economic and political reforms carried out by President Ilham Aliyev.
As you know, various state programs are being implemented Azerbaijan to achieve the comprehensive development of the non-oil sector. These programs make it necessary to move the ICT sector to a qualitatively new level. That is, it is a requirement of the day.
Azerbaijan is the first and the only country in the South Caucasus to adopt the strategy of transition to an information society. In general, Azerbaijan is one of the few countries which have adopted such a strategy.
Speaking of the greatest successes that have been achieved by Azerbaijan in the ICT field during the recent years, I would like to note in the first place that Azerbaijan is the only country in the region which has space industry.
At the same time, the "Electronic Government” system was developed in the country; the application of “electronic signature” was expanded, which has given a strong impetus to the advancement of the ICT field; “4G” service - the latest technology in the mobile telephone network system – was introduced in Azerbaijan, which makes it possible for people to access the high speed internet from anywhere in the country. Also, the territory of the republic is now covered by digital television broadcasting, etc.
The sphere of communications and high technologies can be considered as the most dynamically developing sector. Naturally, we should at least keep track of the world's trends, to keep up with technological innovations.
Serious projects are being currently realized in the country to that end. Of course, ICT is an important area in terms of sustainable development, strengthening of intellectual potential, and development of transparency in the society. And we were assigned specific tasks in this respect.
The works carried out today in this area are aimed at increasing both the quantity and quality of electronic services that are being provided to the population. Electronization and maximum availability of service for citizens is one of the main tasks facing us.
I would like to emphasize that the project "Electronic Government", as one of the priority areas, remains in the centre of attention of the Head of State. The purpose of this project is to provide citizens with the high-quality online services of government agencies and bring the “citizen –government” and “citizen-officer” relations to a more healthy and modern format.
It is gratifying that the state structures are interested in integrating more services into the “E-government” portal. So, over time, citizens will be able to get even more online services.
- Are you satisfied with the current level of Internet penetration in Azerbaijan, and what is being done in this direction?
- Today, the main issue, along with the Internet penetration rate, is increasing the quality and speed of the Internet. Today, more than 75 percent of Azerbaijan's population have access to the internet, which is a good indicator. But do all these people enjoy the high quality Internet? Unfortunately, it is impossible to give a definite answer to this question.
The ongoing monitoring, technical audits and the analysis of the surveys that have been held among internet users indicate that much remains to be done. In fact, it is a continuous process. This area is developing so rapidly that yesterday's technological innovations are considered obsolete today.
Construction of a high-speed fibre-optic cable network, which will cover all residential areas in the country, is underway. This means that the broadband network will provide the whole population of the country with the high-quality Internet and telecommunications services. The aim of the project is to provide each apartment in the country with 100 megabits/sec internet speed, IP TV (Internet TV) and telephone services.
Thus, the new infrastructure will provide simultaneously the citizens of the republic with the three services of high quality. The implementation of the projects has already started in the territory of Baku.
Naturally, one of the major challenges ahead is the formation of a healthy competitive environment through the creation of a good infrastructure. There is a need to expand the application of electronic services in the regions of Azerbaijan and to rehabilitate the sector. One of the main goals of this project is to create favourable conditions for the effective operation of providers. The infrastructure must meet modern standards so that the quality of the services was high.
- Does Azerbaijan plan to use the experience of other countries in the creation of country’s datacentre where citizens’ personal data is transferred from social networks and saved?
- One of the main working principles of corporations like Google, Facebook, Twitter is to ensure the protection of user data. For that, the basic requirement is the availability of a database meeting the required standards. Today, one of the main issues is to turn the republic into a transit information centre in the region.
Creation of a regional datacentre is another step that brings us closer to the achievement of this goal. The regional datacentre, created by the Ministry of Communications and High Technologies is the first certified centre in Azerbaijan and in the whole Caucasus region. The centre has successfully passed the test check, and it will be put into operation by the end of this year.
Telephone operators, financial institutions, small and medium-sized businesses, as well as various organizations, will be able to use the datacentre for protecting and storing information. The datacentre will ensure protection of processed information from external interferences.
At the same time, the datacentre will serve as an alternative supplier of international traffic, which is important from a strategic point of view. Large global companies providing IT-services will be able to create their own infrastructures in the datacentre.
- What reforms are expected in the postal field in terms of providing new financial services, including granting of loans and acceptance of deposits?
- Postal services sector is one of the areas of the telecommunications market which are being used by population most of all, and this area should be constantly improved. Of course, if we talk about the development of Azerpoct LLC, the implementation of reforms and the launch of new services in the field of postal services is a requirement of the time.
We believe that we will be able to build the postal services, which will be able to keep up with the times and meet all modern requirements. As you know, Azerpoct LLC, along with traditional postal services, provides financial services. Today, citizens are able to conveniently use international and local money transfer services.
In general, Azerpost LLC intends to increase the quality of all its financial services. And the preference will be given to electronic payments. Also, work is underway to expand the scope of express mail services, and we try to bring this type of services to level of international standards.
As in other areas, we are considering the possibility of transformation of Azerbaijan’s postal system into the international transit hub. Azerpoct LLC has the most extensive network in the country with the number of its branches reaching 1,600.
Introducing new services, including financial ones, we try to make this benefit of the postal operator even more useful for citizens. Based on the license issued by the Central Bank of Azerbaijan, financial services, except for granting of loans and acceptance of deposits, are being provided to citizens in more than one thousand post offices of Azerpost LLC.
However, the question of the launch of these two services may be considered when the necessary legal framework will be formed.
- The ministry carried out an audit of cable-sewage facilities (CSF). It was revealed that they are overloaded because their installation does not meet the requirements. Does this mean that from now on not every operator will be able to lay its own optics on CSF and that operators will be offered a single infrastructure to provide services to their subscribers?
- For years, cable-sewage facilities have not been used in accordance with the accepted standards. As a result of these shortcomings, the normal operation of this infrastructure has become impossible. Currently, work is underway to eliminate these shortcomings.
Using cables-sewer facilities, providers were able to build their own cable networks. Intensive placement and increase in the number of cable channels has led to overloading the existing wells above the norm. And this, in turn, prevents bringing optics to end-user.
Therefore, we continue carrying activities in this area. Initially, the cable channel infrastructure of Baku will be brought up to the required standard. Then, the optical cable network will be created for each destination. The equipment of telephone hubs will be replaced with the latest-generation systems.
Providers are being offer alternative ports of 100 Mbit/s - 1 Gbit/s capacity to support the development of private networks. As a result of these measures, we will be able to provide stable high-quality communication services meeting modern standards.
- Currently, certain reforms are being carried out in the ministry. Which areas do they cover?
- The reforms carried out in the ministry are part of the multifaceted reforms that are being conducted in the country. So they are aimed at the development of the country as a whole, and the sphere of communications and high technologies in particular. Of course, radical reforms require a comprehensive approach.
We are conducting reforms in the areas of infrastructure, logistics, technology and human resources. At the same time, we pay special attention to the issue of social protection of our employees. Improving social welfare of workers is an integral part of these reforms. There are highly qualified specialists in the telecommunications industry of Azerbaijan who have wide experience team activities.
However, there is always a need for personnel tracking the pace of modern development and a new approach. Therefore, we engage a more professional staff in our activity. Along with this, we organize training courses to improve the skills and knowledge of employees and create opportunities for cooperation with foreign experts.
Work is underway at the international level to expand the cooperation with a number of influential organizations. I would like to also note that the reforms in the sphere of communications and high technologies cover the entire territory of the country. However, it is not possible to obtain results everywhere and at the same time.
New telecommunication projects are being simultaneously implemented in the capital and regions of the country. The reforms cover the postal sector, telecommunications sector and other segments.
For example, pilot projects are being developed in order to improve the quality of services being provided by telecommunications nodes and to provide new services to users. As a result of the realization of the projects, the residents of the regions will be provided with high-quality communication, internet and IP-TV services. Of course, the achievement of these goals will take time, and in the near future, we will see concrete results of the reforms.
- Which concerns are expressed in the appeals coming from citizens? And how does the work with citizens is organised?
- We regularly meet with the citizens both in Baku and in the regions to listen to their requests, proposals and complaints. Most of the appeals are related to the telecommunications industry, Internet, postal services and recruitment. We have always tried to solve the majority of issues on the spot.
Given that the ICT sector comprises the services sector, we are working directly with citizens and therefore, we consider very carefully every appeal. Currently, citizens’ appeals are accepted via the "hot lines" of structural subdivisions of the ministry and through emails and social networks.
Each appeal should be carefully studied and evaluated. To this end, we want to build a customer service canter which, along with improving the quality of reception of citizens’ appeals, will allow us to respond quickly to them. This is very important, given that this area has a wide audience of users.
It is important to eliminate existing problems and errors as a result of the reforms. That is why speaking out about the problems citizens help us. After analysing the received information, we can see more clearly we the current situation in each area. This helps us to determine our next steps.
- Do you use social networks, and how you feel about the practice of "questions and answers" through social networks?
- Yes, I use them. Because today, social networks have become the most active means of communication. I can say that every day I keep track of issues related to the activities of the ministry. As you know, the ministry has pages on social networks, which serve as a method of communication with citizens. In addition to our “hot line”, we regularly receive complaints and appeals from citizens through social networks.
Actually, as you pointed out, carrying out the practice of "questions and answers" through social networks is very useful. That is, social networks play an important role in terms of the establishment of direct and rapid communication with citizens.