Understanding Internet access in Turkmenistan.
Despite the fact that the UN has declared and affirmed that access to the Internet is a basic human right, citizens of Turkmenistan are unable to practice and enjoy this right. In 2022 Turkmen government continued Internet censorship, arbitrarily blocked websites and intimidated and harassed those who install and use internet censorship circumvention tools to access otherwise unavailable resources. Here we briefly outline the state of the TurkmenNet in 2022 and the reality the Internet users in Turkmenistan experience on a daily basis.
It is important to note that the government of Turkmenistan does not publicly address any concerns or numerous reports on the Internet shutdown by independent sources. Government’s continued use of silence as a tool of policymaking opens up a way for speculations.
We also share the key concerns raised by Turkmen Internet users on various media outlets, which were left unaddressed by the government. We hope this brief will guide our readers to relevant sources where they can learn more.
How many Internet users are in Turkmenistan?
As of January 2022, the total population of Turkmenistan was 6.16 million, with 53.5% living in urban centres and 46.5% living in rural areas. The country has relatively young population with the median age of 27.4. There were 2.35 million internet users in Turkmenistan in January 2022 (up from 2.01 million users in 2021). This means that at the start of 2022 there were 3.81 million people in Turkmenistan or 61.9% of the population which remained offline, disconnected from the world wide web. The internet penetration rate, which is the share of the population that has access to the Internet, was 38.1% (up from 33.2% in 2021).
In January 2022 there were 4.92 million cellular mobile connections in Turkmenistan which is equivalent to 79.9% of the total population. However, it is likely that one person uses more than one mobile connection (e.g., one for personal use and another one for work).
It is important to mention that above statistics do not account for children who are too young to use Internet and mobile phones. According to UNICEF, most children start using digital devices at the age of four. In this case, at least 10% of Turkmenistan’s population, who are 0-4 years of age, should be subtracted from the calculations.
How slow is the Internet connection?
According to the Speedtest Global Index, which ranks countries by their Internet speed, Turkmenistan ranks 178 in the world based on fixed broadband speed (December 2022) and 140 based on mobile Internet speed (May 2022). The table below illustrates the mean and median speed for mobile and fixed broadband connection in Turkmenistan for 2022:
Speedtest’s global rankings are based on median download speed instead of mean (average). This is because median captures the typical user’s everyday experience and it is less likely to be influenced by outliers than mean is. The mean (average) can be easily swayed by extremely large or extremely small numbers.
This is clearly illustrated in the table above where the mean values for Internet speed in Turkmenistan mask the fact that not everyone’s internet is improving. While the difference between mean and median Internet speed for mobile is insignificant, for fixed broadband (WI-FI) the mean speed is extremely larger than the median. This shows that selective areas, people and organizations have really high speeds of internet on Wi-Fi while everyone else has slow Internet speed. For example, two people living in Turkmenistan will enjoy different Internet speed on their Wi-Fi and for one of them uploading a file will be 7.5 times slower than for the other person.
Cable.co.uk ranks Turkmenistan as the slowest country for broadband speed among 220 countries. The network speed is 0.77Mbps where the global average is 34.79Mbps. For instance, the average time that it takes to download an HD movie of 5GB in size is:
- 14 hours 46 minutes and 35 second in Turkmenistan (0.77Mbps);
- 57 minutes and 57 seconds in Kyrgyzstan (11.78 Mbps);
- 2 minutes and 36 seconds in Macau (262.74Mbps).
Likewise, Turkmenistan has the second slowest mobile Internet connection in the world. For example, the median mobile connection in top-ranked Norway is 26 times faster than in Turkmenistan. As of May 2022, the median mobile Internet speed in Turkmenistan was:
- 4.98 Mbps to download;
- 1.03 Mbps to upload.
How much does Internet cost?
In 2021 Internet prices have been reduced in Turkmenistan. For example, the monthly fee for high-speed Internet (2 Mbit/s) for households has been reduced from 350 manats in 2020 to 200 manats in 2021 (or $57 according to the official exchange rate). Meanwhile, in January 2022 the minimum wage was set at 1,050 manats and the minimum pension at 410 manats. The table below shows the proportion of income spent on Internet connection in Turkmenistan.
According to the UN Sustainable Development Goals all countries should aim to keep internet costs below 5% of monthly income. However, in Turkmenistan a person who makes a minimum wage spends anywhere from 10% of their salary, on the slowest Internet, to 19%, on the fastest internet connection. The numbers are even worse for retired seniors who receive the minimum pension as they can spend from a quarter to a half of their pension on Internet costs. The shares are smaller in rural areas but the internet connection is also worse there. In comparison, citizens of developed countries spend much less on Internet – 4% in the United States, 3.75% in Russia, 2% in Great Britain and 1.5% in Germany.
When comparing the broadband speed vs price Turkmenistan is among the countries that offers the worst value for money at $507.96 while Russia offers among the best value at $0.62. Similarly, when comparing countries based on the cost for 1GB of mobile data Turkmenistan is among the most expensive at $17.5 while Kyrgyzstan at $0.6 and Russia at $0.5 are among the least expensive countries.
One of the commonly cited reasons for low speed and expensive Internet in Turkmenistan is the monopoly of and lack of competition among the Internet providers. However, Denmark, where the market is also heavily dominated by one provider, ranks number one on the Internet Accessibility Index. Danish internet users enjoy much more affordable internet and some of the best connection speeds in the world. However, while in Denmark it is a private company that has a market domination, in Turkmenistan there is a government monopoly which inhibits market entry to private providers. For instance, the Russian MTC, which had a better mobile and internet connection, was forced out from Turkmenistan due to competition.
Is Internet freely accessible?
Internet is highly censored and controlled in Turkmenistan. The country’s authorities have been restricting access to free information for many years. All foreign social media networks, YouTube, independent media outlets and many other Internet resources are blocked in Turkmenistan and accessing them is only possible using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Even major international e-commerce platforms like AliExpress, Amazon are blocked, so are all mechanisms of online payments. Access is allowed to few ‘whitelisted’ or ‘vetted’ websites, which are not developed by the government but proved to be loyal.
In 2022 authorities continued to sporadically block access to the internet and VPNs. According to Turkmen.news in February the security services in Turkmenistan started blocking almost the entire Internet instead of blocking individual IP addresses. With Serdar Berdimuhamedov coming to power in March 2022 the restriction and blocking of Internet access has only intensified. Azatlyk reported full or partial internet disruptions and blocking of VPNs in five non-consecutive months in 2022 while Cloudflare Radar reported near complete Internet shutdown on April 11-12, 2022.
In September IMO, a popular messenger app, stopped working and many people switched to ICQ, a Russian messenger. However, soon after ICQ became popular among Turkmens the authorities rushed to limit access to it. While the current users can still use the app without VPN, downloading ICQ from the Playstore is no longer possible in Turkmenistan. Moreover, the channels that were created on the platform, particularly for sharing updated VPN keys, are being removed. The ICQ technical support informed the owners of these channels that it was a requirement of the Turkmen authorities.
From December 2022 Turkmentelecom was planning to introduce 4 or 6 Mb/s Internet speed in Ashgabat. However, as of February 2, 2023, they still advertise 2 Mb/s Internet on their website. This could be a real improvement, jumping from 2 to 6 Mb/s. However, when comparing to other Central Asian countries, it is still very slow. For instance, at Kyrgyz provider Home Line, the minimum tariff is 5 Mb/s and maximum is 100 Mb/s and at the Uzbek provider Sarkor the tariffs range from 20 to 100 Mb/s.
On April 27, 2015 Turkmenistan even launched its own communications satellite called “Turkmen Alem 52E” or “Turkmen universe.” The satellite was built by a French-Italian company Thales Alenia Space and it was launched into orbit by Ellon Musk’s SpaceX using Falcon 9 launch vehicle from California, USA. The satellite is operated by the National Space Agency of Turkmenistan, which was specifically created to support the development of national communication systems in the country. The main goals for launching its own satellite was to speed up the development of the Internet, satellite TV and various communication systems as well as ensure information security of the country. However, the problem of the Turkmen Internet is not the infrastructure but rather the artificial restriction on the development of technologies.
Why VPNs are no longer a solution to access Internet freely?
The sweeping crackdown on all VPN providers continued in Turkmenistan in 2022. The Turkmen security services started actively blocking VPNs from fall of 2021 when they have finally learned how to block Open VPN, which is a very sophisticated technology. If previously the security services were only blocking individual IP addresses, on which VPN software was installed, now they block the entire subnets of providers. They block tens and even hundreds of thousands of IP addresses belonging to the provider, on which at least one VPN server was found. This means, “neighboring” IP addresses from the same provider subnet, which often have nothing to do with the VPN, also get blocked. It is similar to the secret service turning off all phone numbers with the same first few digits. Overall, two-thirds of the world’s IP addresses are blocked in Turkmenistan. Many of these are completely harmless websites that have been blocked by accident.
While VPNs are not outlawed in Turkmenistan the law prohibits the use of “uncertified” encryption programs and criminalizes “deliberately providing illegal services that provide technical programs” online. The programmers who install VPN software and similar applications on computers and mobile phones of ordinary users are harassed and under the Criminal Code of Turkmenistan can face up to 7 years in prison. Meanwhile, the State Cybersecurity program instructs the authorized bodies to “carry out explanatory work to increase the level of knowledge of citizens within the information space, in particular information security.” So, people using VPNs are often given lectures on dangers of Internet and even fined 300 manats.
Azatlyk Radio reports cases from Balkan region where the security services collect information from Internet and mobile communication providers to determine who uses high speed Internet services and which devices use an excessive amount of Internet data. These individuals are then invited for a consultation, where their devices are examined and if any information was deleted from their devices, the officers try to recover it. In case security services find any information that does not comply with the government policy, the owner of the device is threatened with imprisonment. Moreover, citizens who use paid VPN servers are required to tell who sold them this service. Citizens caught using VPN for the first time are interrogated and released with a warning. However, if the person is caught for the second or third time and still refuses to tell where they got the VPN, they are kept under arrest for 10 days, which is extended to 15 days if they remain silent.
Public sector employees are forced to write a statement promising that neither they nor their family members will use VPN. The statement says that “the Turkmen Internet has all the necessary services, and there is no need to use a VPN and that the citizen will not visit YouTube, TikTok and porn sites”. Also, “that the Turkmen websites provide the opportunity to watch all foreign films approved by the Ministry of Culture of Turkmenistan and corresponding to Turkmen principles.” Employees also agree that in case “they use VPN, they will leave their jobs voluntarily”.
Given that most websites and social media platforms are blocked in the country, people are forced to use VPN services. However, using a VPN slows down the internet speed, which is already very slow in Turkmenistan. Meanwhile, VPNs of reputable companies that do not reduce Internet speed are blocked and they do not work in Turkmenistan.
While Turkmen media outlets try to educate the public about the dangers of using free VPN services, they do not explain this in the context of Turkmenistan. They neither clarify why VPNs are being used by Internet users in Turkmenistan nor why they are continuously being blocked by the security services.
How do people in Turkmenistan use Internet?
Cloudflare Radar shows that from December 23-29 Internet traffic volume has increased and later, around the New Year it decreased drastically. Most Internet users accessed it via mobile phones (75%) while majority of Internet traffic was led by automated bots (57%) than by humans (43%). In fact, from March-July 2022 Turkmenistan ranked first in the world in terms of percentage of bot traffic.
Bot traffic refers to any non-human traffic to a website or an application. While bots are used for beneficial purposes such as for search engines and digital assistants (e.g. Siri, Alexa), they can also be used for malicious purposes such as launching DDoS attacks. A distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack is an attempt to disrupt the normal traffic of a given server or network to make it unavailable to its intended users. For example, in May 2021 the independent media outlet – Chronicles of Turkmenistan, experienced DDoS attack.
Source: Cloudflare Radar
During 2022 most Internet users in Turkmenistan accessed websites related to society & lifestyle (29.5%) and shopping (28%). Meanwhile, very few users accessed resources related to education (1.5%) and government services (1%).
Source: Cloudflare Radar
What is the economic loss from limited Internet connection?
Using the formula by the Global Network Initiative Progres.online has calculated the economic loss of blocked Internet in Turkmenistan. When the Internet is blocked, the country’s economy experiences a negative impact of USD 348,000 per day. This equates to an economic loss of nearly USD 127 million over the course of a year. Internet is essential for Turkmenistan’s commercial, economic and human development, which are crucial for maintaining country’s competitiveness in the global market.
What is an autonomous National Digital Network?
On December 9, 2022 President Serdar Berdimuhamedov signed a resolution that established a commission which will develop a concept for creating the National Digital Network. The idea to create an autonomous digital network, which will not be connected to the Internet, was first suggested by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan Rashid Meredov in September 2022. According to Mr. Meredov its main goals are “to expand and unify country’s electronic communication system, improve the tools of national digital diplomacy and enhance the activities of the domestic diplomatic service in the international information space”. The initiative is part of the Digital Diplomacy department which was created within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in February 2020.
This is also part of the effort to develop digital technologies in Turkmenistan including national mobile applications, websites and platforms designed for work and leisure. Apparently, Turkmentelekom, the state-owned telecommunications company, in partnership with private companies, is creating a ‘national ecosystem of useful web services.’ So far in 2020 Turkmenistan launched a unified web portal e.gov.tm to access most government services online and Altyn Asyr developed tmchat, a messaging application that has over 50,000 downloads as of January 2023. Moreover, Turkmentelekom in partnership with “Jan Tehnologiya” company developed another local messaging app called Start messenger. However, Turkmen users are reluctant to download and use this messenger because of security concerns since the app collects a lot of personal data including users’ GPS, incoming calls, contacts and many other private information.
There are concerns, both among citizens of Turkmenistan and international experts that the new network will further tighten government’s grip on internet use in the country. As Eurasianet suggests, this means “sealing the local internet off to the world to ensure no undesirable content is able to soil the minds of Turkmen citizens. While information should not be able to come in freely, a sanitized form of it should be able to leave”.
Even China, which is famous for its total Internet censorship, does not have an autonomous national network. North Korea is the only country in the world that has a national network, called Kwangmyong or Bright Light, that is not connected to the global Internet. It is only used by average citizens. Trained professionals upload into this network verified content from the Internet that they find useful to citizens. Only diplomatic missions and some privileged institutions with a special permit have access to the global Internet. Other organizations can request a targeted search for information from the specialists.
It remains unclear how this initiative will be carried out. Turkmenistan does not have a large population and economy like in China which could make use of the domestic network. It also lacks the financial means and specialists to make it happen. However, as indicated in the State Cybersecurity Program of Turkmenistan, the country plans to train professionals in the field of cybersecurity. Currently, the Ministry of National Security relies on foreign IT specialists to block the Internet. There is also a shortage of domestically produced content in the Turkmen language on science, medicine, literature, education or business, so the negative consequences of further isolating Turkmens digitally will be detrimental for the current and future generations.
What do Turkmens think about the National Digital Network?
It is unclear if having the autonomous National Digital Network means Turkmen citizens will still be able to access global Internet and if yes, to what extent. This has raised a lot of questions and concerns among Internet users in Turkmenistan. Below we share some public comments posted mainly on the Instagram page of Orient.tm, turkmen.news and Chronicles of Turkmenistan.
“This means that apart from Orient.tm we will not see anything else! So, you can already start downloading textbooks, e-books, music, movies, etc! Autonomous Internet implies a complete blockade of the worldwide Internet in our country! Oh yes, don’t forget to say goodbye to your relatives abroad, you won’t be able to talk to them anymore”.
“Well, from one point of view, due to the economic war, etc., etc., each country strives to make its own network. But it will all be connected to the Internet, otherwise it’s not possible. Even China cannot and will not want to make its own Internet because of a lot of unnecessary expenses. But China has created its own an island in the world of Internet. But people still have access to the outside network, since, I repeat, the network is one. So, don’t be scared people, but start studying and sending your children to study IT. The problem of humanity has always been the inability to explain one’s thought and then think for yourself”.
“The Turkmen Autonomous Internet? I assure you; it will look like a primitive and cheap Turkmen netbook copied from the Chinese, which is given to first-graders on behalf of the President. All cybersecurity in Turkmen style will be reduced to new blocking, Internet speed limits, high cost of services and, of course, to increased control over Internet users and intimidation. That would be cybersecurity in Turkmen or North Korean style, whatever you want”.
“Well, this is beyond what can be commented on. The Internet is valuable because it is a worldwide network. Cutting yourself off from it is a digital prison. How much knowledge can be accumulated in the internal network?! None. Such a decision is made by dictators who tremble for their power and do not think about development. North Korea, Turkmenistan is your brother!”
“Do you know what I’ll say? Fully open this Internet to the Turkmen people, and wait 5-6 years. This will not affect the worldview, mentality, intellect, or outlook of the people. What it was and will remain. They will also ask for grass with a thorn”.
“Turkmenistan prints about 400 titles in Turkmen language every year. Where will we find resources in the Turkmen language?”