(Credit: pxhere.com)

The shift to online teaching during the pandemic has brought one of Turkey’s perennial problems to the forefront of public debate: its frustratingly slow internet speed.

Recent speed test data collected from internet users ranks Turkey 99th out of 181 countries, with an average connection speed of 38.03 Mbps. The global average is around 106 Mbps. Internet speed is vital for the economy, which presents a particular problem for Turkey, a G20 country that aspires to be one of the world’s top ten economies by 2023. A World Bank / IFC report states that a %10 increase in internet speed amounts to %1.3 increase in economic growth. 

President Erdoğan giving a speech at MUSIAD in 2019 about telecommunication companies (Credit: MUSIAD)

The government is well aware of the problem. In 2019, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave a speech where he stated that the telecommunication companies need to speed up their infrastructures before 2021 in order to make the most of the new 5G technology. Erdoğan declared: ‘‘whoever gets in the way of the fibre transformation has to deal with me, myself!’’ 

Yet when schools were closed in the spring of 2020, many students around the country – particularly those living outside the main urban areas – struggled to use the government’s digital streaming service, Eba. ‘‘I don’t really use the internet much, but when I do, it keeps trying to connect,” Inside Turkey was told by one teenager, Mahmut. “The connection sign keeps swirling.” Another, Ekrem, said: “I can’t even stream YouTube videos when someone else is connected to the wifi, so I wait until my parents go to sleep.” 

Mahmut, a Buruk resident and the son of a local grocery store owner (Credit: Yağız Alp Tekin)

Most of the country still uses the copper internet infrastructure that was installed 30 years ago. As a result, the ratio of fibre cable to the total internet infrastructure is behind the OECD average. There are 3.1 meters of fibre cables for every person in İstanbul, compared with 770 metres per person in Stockholm, one of the most successful examples. This is despite the Turkish government investing 16.2 billion dollars in internet infrastructure in the last 14 years. 

The root of the problem dates back to 2005, to one of the greatest privatisation attempts in the history of the Turkish Republic. The early 2000s were marked by efforts to privatise state institutions that were seen as inefficient. This line of thinking became official policy at the turn of the century, after the 2000 financial crisis when Turkey was bailed out by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). 

In this spirit, in 2005, 55% of the Turkish telecommunication giant Türk Telekom’s shares were put up for sale. Oger Telecom, a company owned by the Lebanese Hariri family, made the winning bid, obtaining the shares and operational rights of Türk Telekom for 21 years. 

However, in subsequent years, Oger Telecom did not pay for its shares. In 2013 the company took 4.75 billion dollars worth of credit from a consortium of Turkish banks, which has not been fully repaid to this day. In 2017, the company defaulted on the credit and filed for bankruptcy. In the meantime, they had received more than 6.5 billion dollars as a dividend from their shares, which was not used to pay off the debt. In 2018, Oger Telecom’s shares were handed over to a consortium of banks (LYY) that consisted of the main creditors. The debacle proved to be a significant drag on upgrading Turkey’s internet infrastructure. 

Despite the recent efforts to speed up the introduction of fibre cables, there are systemic problems that account for Turkey’s insufficient internet speeds. The Independent Telecommunication Companies Association (Telkoder) recently published a report that points out the high prices charged by local government for laying cables. 

At Adana Municipality’s telecommunications unit, Serdar Ünal and Kardelen Erdoğan explained the role of local government to Inside Turkey. The two employees oversee the fibre transformation requests submitted by telecoms companies and their execution.

Adana Municipality Telecommunication Unit (Credit: Yağız Alp Tekin)

They argue that the local government charges are not to blame, saying instead that the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure is very slow to grant excavation licenses, especially to private telecommunication companies.   

‘‘Let me give you an example’’ said Ünal, ‘‘one of the telecommunication companies operating in Adana recently paid 200 thousand liras for their five-year long infrastructure operations. 200 thousand liras is nothing for these companies.’’  

Murat Erkan, the CEO of Turkcell, one of the private companies, agrees. He complains that they need approval from at least four authorities and it is a struggle to get a permit from every single one of them. 

At the Adana Municipality, Ünal’s colleague Erdoğan adds: ‘‘Often the companies wait years to get their excavation permits. In the meantime, the population doubles. As a result, the internet speed slows down as it cannot support the unforeseen demand.’’ 

At Buruk, a village in southern Turkey, 57% of the population lack access to fibre infrastructure. This is a deep-rooted problem because it is estimated that implementing fibre infrastructure in areas outside cities will cost twice as much as the amount invested so far. 

‘‘I prepared for the university entrance exams this year,” said Mahmut, a Buruk resident and the son of a local grocer. “I was at home for almost a year. It was quite stressful. My mobile network is quite fast but it is costly. I cannot afford to watch Youtube videos and play online games. So I had to use our wifi network to connect to the internet throughout the year’’

Laying fibre cables in the suburbs of Adana (Credit: Yağız Alp Tekin)

At his home, Mahmut logged on to Instagram, to demonstrate his slow internet speed. The connection sign kept swirling and the pictures took minutes to load. He tried instead to stream a Youtube video. He tried playing the video on 1080p resolution to no avail. He quickly switched to 360p, which successfully streams a heavily pixelated version. 

Recently, the Turkish Telecommunication Authority, the national agency that oversees the internet, announced that it would double fibre infrastructure by 2023. Although previous promises have not been met, it signals an awareness of the problem.

Private telecoms companies may also prove to be a help. Their fibre infrastructure has grown at four times the rate of Türk Telekom, the former public utility. If this trend continues, then Turkish internet users’ long wait might soon be over.