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The Internet is Transforming Iran

(Washington, DC -- 16 July 2001) The surging popularity of the Internet in Iran is giving Iranians new ways to communicate with the outside world and forcing Tehran to revise its approach to telecommunications, according to an American analyst tracking the development of the Internet there who spoke at an RFE/RL briefing last week.

Joseph Braude, an analyst at Pyramid Research, said that more than 380,000 of Iran's 73 million people currently use the Internet, a figure he estimates will continue to grow by nearly 30% every six months. That demand is providing growth opportunities to the more than 100 Internet Service Providers and more than 1,600 Internet cafes now operating in Iran.

Braude stated that his growth estimate was conservative in light of booming demand but realistic in the face of an antiquated copper cable-based telecommunications infrastructure that the government-owned Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI) is now preparing to overhaul.

The size of the overhaul, Braude said, is forcing TCI and its government supervisors to consider allowing the private sector and foreign investors to play a key role in restructuring the company -- a point just made by the head of Iran's recently renamed Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, Ahmad-e Mo'tamedi. Those changes, along with increased Internet use, cannot fail to have an impact on society and politics, Braude added.

At this point, he pointed out, the government is not filtering Internet content coming into Iran largely because of the technical challenges involved. Braude noted that the closure of 450 cafes in mid-May just before Iran's presidential election affected mostly those with high-speed access to the Internet. He said the government had taken this action because such broadband connections have been widely used by younger Iranians to make low-cost "voice over IP" (VoIP) telephone calls to friends abroad.

TCI has blamed such activity for lost international long-distance revenues, Braude said. Moreover, the cafes have since reopened, but VoIP telephony has now been banned by TCI.