Connection With the Future
The formation of an information society is one of Belarus’ national priorities. In 2015 Belarus intends to become one of the top 30 countries with a high level of development of information and communication technologies. A major step to reach the top 30 countries has already been made. The penetration rate of mobile communication and broadband Internet access in Belarus exceeds that in the majority of the CIS states. Tremendous work has been done to liberalize the market of telecommunication services, switch to digital television, and create a digital government. More details about the results and tasks of the country’s IT promotion strategy are revealed in an interview of the Economy of Belarus Magazine with Belarusian Information Technologies and Communications Minister Sergei POPKOV.
In January the new version of the law on telecommunications will come into force. What important changes should the industry expect?
There are quite many novelties. First of all, the document no longer specifies Beltelecom’s exclusive right to handle international traffic and to connect to foreign telecommunication networks. The term “national telecommunication operator” has been scrapped, too.
This is why the Information Technologies and Communications Ministry has been tasked with providing universal telecommunication services in Belarus. Individual telecommunication operators will be allowed to connect their telecommunication networks to the public telecommunication network, handle international traffic and connect to foreign telecommunication networks.
The law specifies requirements for the subscriber information that telecommunication operators can keep. By submitting an application subscribers will be able to disallow the operator to use the data for the sake of providing information services. The law introduces the term “telecommunication services provider”. Such providers pursue activities that do not require a license in the area of communication.
The law also amends the rules regulating the use of the radio frequency spectrum. Agencies have been chosen to take care of the routine administration of the radio frequency spectrum. Their number has increased, their authority has been specified and systematized taking into account the functions they indeed perform. Procedures to control the use of emitting radio electronic devices and highfrequency devices in Belarus have been spelled out, too.
On the whole, the revised version of the law will create the legal base to ensure the integrity and stable operation of telecommunication networks. It will cover traffic transmission matters and links between telecommunication networks, conditions to foster the development of telecommunication services. It will also improve the state regulation and administration of the use of the radio frequency spectrum. The document is very liberal. It follows international and national trends in the development of telecommunications. No doubt the law will help accomplish the tasks that have been set in addition to addressing unresolved problems. It will be the foundation and the guarantee of stable, competitive, and profitable operation of telecommunication operators.
The creation of a digital government is an important condition for the country’s informatization. What components are available already? What components have yet to be developed?
Over the last three years a number of state information systems and resources have been developed and modernized. We have created nearly all the basic digital government components, which are needed for interaction between government agencies and for integrating information resources.
In particular, the nationwide data sharing system has been modernized. It is now ready to offer complicated services on the basis of integrated information resources. The telecommunication infrastructure of the Belarus President Administration, the Council of Ministers, the customs and border services, other government agencies, the Belarus President website has been upgraded. The system for interagency document management onthebasisof auniversalinteraction format has been modernized. It is now used to share data between 117 central government agencies and other organizations. The system Municipal Councils of Deputies has been introduced in over 1,400 rural and urban administrative areas
For three years in a row the International Telecommunication Union has ranked Belarus one of the top 10 economies with the most rapidly developing indicators of information and communication technologies (access and usage). In 2012 Belarus gained five points in the ranking to reach the 41st position and in the CIS region it is only below the Russian
Federation (one position up)
to allow routinely sharing digital documents by councils of deputies of all levels.
Preparations are now underway to launch the second phase of the software complex to provide administrative services to citizens using onestop principles in integration with the nationwide data sharing system. We are preparing to create a state digital register of births, marriages, and deaths, a centralized archive, and a computerized information system to unify the access of users to secure email services, to the interagency digital document management, and the universal system to control the fulfillment of instructions of the Belarus President. Preparations have been launched to develop a web portal of the National Statistics Committee of Belarus that will provide information to respondents of state statistics surveys. Specialists are also getting ready to develop an information system to analyze crime rate and law enforcement efforts for the Prosecutor General’s Office.
Tell us, please, about the introduction of the integrated services and payments system, which is needed for identifying organizations and citizens and for carrying out transactions?
The system is in its infancy. The Presidium of the Council of Ministers has approved the draft concept of the system. All the operations, including the implementation and financing, will be coordinated by the Information Technologies and Communications Ministry. The National Center for Electronic Services ( NCES) will operate the system.
The largescale innovative project relies on two fundamental components: the Belarusian microprocessorbased digital card, which is being developed taking into account the international standard EMV, and the universal system for identifying natural and legal persons. By the way, in parallel with our project the Interior Ministry is working to introduce identification passport cards also known as biometric passports.
The creation of the Belarusian integrated services and payments system will enable legally binding digital interaction between citizens, the state, and the private sector. Transition to fully functional cashless payments for commodities and services will be accomplished.
The total number of mobile communication subscribers in Belarus has
reached 11.2 million, with the penetration rate of 118.7 subscribers
per 100 residents
First, it will allow reducing the expenses involved in using cash. Second, it will change the current situation: many plastic cards have been issued but most of them are used only to cash salaries in ATMs.
Apart from that, the project will allow the state to collect uptodate and reliable information in order to calculate subsidies for social service providers. It will also streamline allowances and related disbursements and hence reduce expenses of the state budget. The profitability of public transport will be increased thanks to the more scrupulous registration of subsidies and reduced losses from free travels. On the whole, citizens will be given a convenient and universal instrument to get social services and access state information resources.
What are the plans regarding the development of the universal web portal for providing state services?
Within the next 11.5 years the ability to provide digital services to individuals and corporations will be greatly enhanced thanks to the integration of state information resources with the nationwide data sharing system. Government agencies and local authorities as well as the Minsk City Hall have
developed programs to introduce information technologies in economic sectors and regions in 20142015. Virtually all the programs envisage the integration of information resources and using them to build universal information space for economic sectors and regions. After that new digital services will be created and will be available from the universal web portal of state services.
The transition from analogue to digital television is another recent large-scale project for Belarus. The work is nearing completion. What is left to do?
Indeed, within the framework of the government program vigorous work is in progress to develop aerial digital television using the DVBT standard in order to improve the quality of television signals and provide the nation with the mandatory universally available package of eight TV programs and one sound program First National Channel of the Belarusian Radio.
Since 2005 as many as 74 digital television transmitters have been commissioned to cover the area
where 97.51% of the nation lives. There are plans to raise the digital television coverage area to 98.1% in 2014. As many as ten radio and television transmitting stations are supposed to be built by the end of the year. Another seven stations will be commissioned in 2015 to enable the entire nation to receive aerial digital television signals.
The transition to aerial digital television is part of the global practice necessitated by inter national commitments, including those of Belarus. Analogue television broadcasting has to be stopped on 17 June 2015 at the latest. The phasing out of analogue television will enable the fullfledged development of the second package of TV channels, the third one, and more. It will also allow introducing new technologies. The transition in Belarus proceeds gradually and will be completed in May 2015.
For the sake of expanding the choice of services and optimizing the transition to the new television format, including by providing the necessary receivers to users, since June 2013 Beltelecom has been offering commercial aerial digital television services. A standard TV package of 18 popular TV channels is available in addition to 17 extra TV channels, which are bundled into four interestbased packages.
New data transfer opportunities will be brought about by the forthcoming launch of the 4G LTE mobile telecommunication network in Belarus. When will it happen? What services will the Belarusians get?
In line with the investment contract SOOO Belarusian Cloud Technologies plans to launch the LTE network step by step. The network will go online in Minsk in 2015, in all the oblast capitals in 20152016, and in populated localities where over 50,000 people live in 20162020.
Apart from conventional services such as video on demand, online television and so on in real time at high speeds, the LTE technology will allow developing brand new services.
For instance, a project to enable the highspeed transfer of multimedia data (video, photo, sound) between remote localities is being developed for the healthcare industry. The project will allow sharing results of medical tests in real time, consulting with top medics and even carrying out surgeries.
The same abilities will be granted to similar projects in the area of education, management of municipal services, transport and many other things.
Are there reasons to believe the cost of internetwork calls will be reduced due to the liberalization of the telecommunication market?
Internetwork calls in mobile telecommunication networks are not regulated by the state. The prices are free and are set by every mobile carrier independently. The mobile carriers are guided by their pricing policies, which, as a rule, offers a number of preferential options, including nonprice ones. The latter include favorite numbers, bundled minutes, and bundled Internet traffic.
Depending on the technology used to provide services, the cost of internetwork calls may include fees collected for using the network of the landline operator (transit fee), which account for about 15% of the price for calling numbers of other mobile carriers.
As of 2014 Beltelecom is not the only company to handle phone traffic. The service is also available from other telecommunication operators – the National Traffic Exchange Center and SOOO Belarusian Cloud Technologies.
Tougher competition in this field in the future may encourage mobile carriers to reduce prices for internetwork calls.
Are international calls going to be cheaper? It was reported in April that a working group will be set up to reduce the cost of roaming in the Customs Union and the Single Economic Space.
The cost of international calls and roaming rates are also regulated by telecommunication operators on their own taking into account the expenses they bear as well as the money paid to international telecommunication operators, with the rates set by international contracts. Taking into account that foreign currency is involved, the rates may be reduced only if telecommunication operators in the Single Economic Space come to a mutual agreement.
I would like to note that the legal declaration of lower roaming charges in the European Union was preceded by extensive stepbystep preparations. A number of directives to regulate legal relations and rates were adopted.
The Information Technologies and Communications Ministry approves of the intention of the Eurasian Economic Commission to reduce roaming rates and deems it necessary to study all the possible ways to reduce the rates taking into account geographical and regulatory differences in every Single Economic Space member state.
Apart from that, within the framework of the Regional Commonwealth in the Field of Communications the Ministry has taken part in preparing the draft declaration on mobile communication internetwork pricing in the CIS states. The declaration was forwarded to the CIS Executive Committee in 2013. The working group on pricing policy of the Regional Commonwealth in the Field of Communications also includes representatives of the Belarusian Information Technologies and Communications Ministry.
Despite rather impressive results in promoting Internet access in Belarus people sometimes complain of prices and download speeds of the available Internet packages. Do you think these complaints are justified?
See for yourselves. A wide choice of Internet access plans targeting people with different needs and different budgets is available on the market. Belarusians are offered 24/7 Internet access without traffic
restrictions, prepaid traffic plans, broadband Internet access via optical networks without traffic restrictions, social Internet access plans for the least protected users.
For a number of years apart from developing their networks Belarusian telecommunication operators have been working to reduce Internet prices or change the content of the Internet packages in order to offer more traffic, higher speeds without changing the prices.
For instance, as of 1 September 2007 one of the most popular Internet access plans Domosed from Beltelecom offered Internet access at 128/128kbps for Br133,000. As of 20 August 2014 the price was Br70,375 ($6.8) while the speed was 1024/512kbps. If we look at the old price for Internet access at 1Mbps and the new one, the price has dropped by 17 times.
For the sake of comparison I can say that in August 2014 prices for Internet access at 2Mbps averaged $16.3 in Kazakhstan, $3.89.1 in Ukraine, $9.6 in Moldova, and $11.6 in Russia.
Taking into account the advent of new technologies the market of wired ADSLbased access (with the download speed up to 8Mbps) is gradually moving away from copper wires to optical cables (with the download speed of over 10Mbps). Optical cables enable high data transfer speeds for implementing modern services. Beltelecom also focuses on providing highspeed Internet access using the optical GPON technology, regularly renewing and improving the choice of Internet plans and offering a system of discounts.
For the sake of addressing issues with regard to control of the quality of telecommunication services, relations between telecommunication operators and subscribers in 2013, the Council of Ministers passed an executive order to amend the telecommunication rules. The rules now require contracts to specify quality parameters of broadband Internet access services. Telecommunication operators are supposed to constantly control these parameters and keep subscribers informed via relevant websites.
As many as 5.6 million mobile communication subscribers use wireless access to the Internet
A specialized website has been deployed to allow subscribers to evaluate the quality of Internet access services in line with the quality parameters specified by their contracts. If necessary, subscribers can get a statement from experts. The statement will be used by competent authorities to decide whether or not the parties to the contract fulfill terms of the contract.
What are the future plans regarding Wi-Fi development? Are we getting free Wi-Fi in airports, railway stations, hotels the way it is done abroad?
Beltelecom has already deployed over 260,000 WiFi access points. By 2016 their number is to reach 400,000. There are also plans to provide individual WiFi subnets (SSID) to legal persons.
As far as free WiFi is concerned, it can be free only for end users. However, the Internet service provider or another legal person that provides the service will still have to pay for it.
For instance, at present some of the hotels, where Beltelecom’s WiFi access points are installed, offer free WiFi to their clients. The hotels pay for user names and passwords. It is possible that advertisers may be willing to pay for Internet access for end users after the users have watched an advertising video.
By the end of 2015 Belarus intends to become one of the top 30 countries with the best developed information and communication technologies. What has yet to be done to achieve this goal?
According to the latest data revealed by the United Nations EGovernment Survey 2014: EGovernment for the Future We Want in late June 2014, Belarus ranked 55th out of 193 countries as far as the readiness for digital government is concerned. A similar ranking published in 2012 placed Belarus at the 61st position.
On the basis of the experience of the countries with advanced information and communication technologies, in particular, digital government, the Information Technologies and Communications Ministry intends to secure mass transition to administrative procedures and other digital services via transactions and interaction. There are plans to develop digital democracy for the sake of enabling wide population strata to interactively participate in the preparation, analysis, discussions of draft regulations, to help government agencies in dangerous situations. Prerequisites will be created to bring about open data that will allow everyone concerned to get access to a broad range of information from government agencies and the enterprises and organizations they run for the sake of using the information freely for any legal purposes, including the provision of digital services of their own.
In the long term actions in several areas will need to be taken. The creation and development of the digital government is at the top of the list. The digital government will secure the openness of the court system, the availability of legal information, and better knowledge of the law in the general public. There are also plans to implement a systemic “smart city” project by introducing information and communication technologies into the administration of municipal services for the sake of living convenient and safe lives. Machine to machine ( M2M) technologies are expected to be introduced to connect remote facilities and systems for the sake of automating business processes and securing a technological potential that will benefit the country. Apart from that, fullscale efforts will be exercised to digitize archived documents, primarily in the area of healthcare and social services.