The Phone: Mobile Networks in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan


The phone has become a ubiquitous feature of contemporary life. Mobile technology is becoming a hallmark of many development projects. The African continent, for instance, is celebrated for advances in the use of cellular phones as a medium of payment in remote areas. Building off the Soviet infrastructure, Azerbaijan prides itself on a mobile network with expansive coverage of the country. Recent marketing stunts include trips to Mt. Bazarduzu - the tallest point in the Republic - by Nar Mobile and Azercell, proving their cell service reaches to the most hard to reach. A quick jaunt through Baku, and out into the regions reveals advertisement for phone companies enjoys a bulk share of public space. Even entire train lines in the Baku city metro are covered in the purple banner of one of the major companies. Three mobile providers dominate the Azerbaijani cell phone market: Bakcell, the first mobile company established in 1995; Azercell, the largest mobile company established two years later; and Azerfon, the newest company founded in 2007 operating the brand Nar (meaning pomegranate in Azerbaijani). Each company working with GSM technology, with each boasting 4G data packages by the end of the year.


According to the Teliosonera website (majority owner of Azercell, and many other mobile providers),  the mobile penetration is a whopping 115% - based on my experience, this makes a lot of sense. My first host brother gave me both his Azercell and Nar Mobile numbers, which I didn't understand at the time - I assumed one was a work phone, but then I didn't know why he didn't just give me his personal number. It turns out, having more than one cell number is one of many strategies local Azerbaijanis use to save money.

Similar to the States, phone companies give discounts to in-service phone calls and SMS. It turned out, most of my friends have at least two numbers (often with two phones, but some people have phones that accept multiple sim cards). Generally, most people have pre-paid plans through one of the companies. "Contour" is an out-phased marketing scheme, but is still used widely to refer to the amount of money on a particular phone. People will refer to being "out of contour" or ask people to "buy some contour" or even "gift contour" from their balance by SMS. All phone plans only charge the subscriber when the send, but not receive SMS and calls. Using Azercell's "ZengEtCell" feature (lit: RingCell), a pre-paid customer who has depleted their supply of contour can send an SMS for free with a short sentence requesting a callback. You can send 7 of these a day. Often in lieu of your name or number, people will text a brief note - maybe just a "Yes" or "No." Azercell also allows subscribers to send SMS from their online account - 10 free per day. (I used this feature to have free texts sent from the US - gave my login info to friends back in the States and they were able to send my phone an SMS for free from their computers.)

A little later on I discovered many people "VZV" - which is an onomatopoeia for a "qisa zeng" or "short call.  This either lets you know a persons sees you, or maybe asking for a callback. Just one, quick ring so they can conserve kontor. Once while riding the bus to Baku, one of my friends kept VZV-ing me - everytime I called back he wouldn't answer. I assumed he was "butt-dialing" me, but in after a few minutes a felt a tap on my shoulder. He was on the bus and was trying to get me to look back at him.


One of over a dozen Azercell stores in a town of about 12,000. Zaqatala, Azerbaijan
One of over a dozen Azercell stores in a town of about 12,000. Zaqatala, Azerbaijan

n we first arrived in country, our cultural and language teacher took our passports and acquired our first phones and pre-paid Azercell SimSim cards. Cellphone sellers are one of the most common sites in nearly every nook of the country - this includes dedicated Azercell, Bakcell or Nar Mobile stores - or people who offer numbers and phones on the side. Purple and red charge up cards for pre-paid plans are usually scattered throughout the streets, and make up a large percentage of litter. Nearly any store that sells something sell charge-up cards. Prepaid subscribers can charge-up online (that is if they have an Azerbaijan International Bank account).

Discussing phones with a good friend, he recalled an acquaintance who landed a nice, cushy bank job. He found himself the target of ridicule over the phone he was using. An expensive phone was a status symbol, and one that should reflect the status of the job. This man eventual broke down and purchased a touch-screen smart phone. My first phone was a small, very common Nokia tank known as a "soapbar."

Generally speaking, phone plans in Azerbaijan are significantly cheaper than in the States. The price for a pre-paid number is 5 AZN ($6.36), however, this price may change depending on the phone number. It seems that numbers that are easier to remember are more expensive - I've also heard that "lucky" numbers might cost more, but I can't substantiate this claim. After purchasing a number - you can add "contour" that can be put toward per use purchase, or buy discounted packages. For instance, the fifty-SMS package can be purchased for just about $1.15. For one full year (excluding the cost of the phone) on Azercell's GencSim prepaid plan, I paid a total of 98 AZN which comes to about $10.40 per month. For the year, I used about eleven-hundred text messages and seven months of data (3200 mb total) while I had a smart phone (Samsung Galaxy S II).  I generally purchased the smallest data package of 200mb, (unused data and text rolled over if you purchased another package before the expiration of the previous) and found it difficult to even come close to using all my data with normal use. For about four cents, I could send texts back to the States, but only for AT&T and Sprint (not Verizon, which most in Montana tend to have). For about sixteen cents, I sent messages to a Softbank  phone in Japan.

The mobile phone industry in Azerbaijan seems to be making leaps and bounds in expansion and sophistication. Azercell, for instance, is even one of the largest tax payers. However, these developments are not without blemish. For instance, the industry is accused of being, at best, an oligopoly. The most recently established firm, Azerfon, for instance, is believed to be majority owned by President Aliyev's daughters through a shady network of holding companies registered in Panama. Azerfon's is also believed to have acquired the country's first 3G license without following the proper legal avenues.

These private companies are also believe to be in cahoots with government surveillance. According to a report, Azerbaijani authorities put "black boxes" on Azercell towers that can be used "enabling security agencies to monitor all mobile communications in real-time."  The people I discussed this topic with were not surprised, it was a common assumption that the government monitored most electronic communications, and Amnesty International corroborates this view.


Most of the companies also partner with mobile providers in neighboring countries, such as Azercell and Georgia's Geocell (also owned by TelioSonera). While, climbing Mt. Kazbek - at the Meteo Station - I was able to text my partner in Okinawa, Japan (some 4680 miles away) with my Azercell sim card while roaming on Geocell for about eighteen cents (USD). (For a complete list of roaming partners checkout GSM world) To call and text cell phones back home - once I had a solid internet connection in my home in Azerbaijan - I primarily use Google Voice, occasionally Skype. Others used Magic Jack. If you are traveling through Azerbaijan, purchasing a phone with a pre-paid plan is definitely feasible and economical.