Changes and Obstacles in the Ministry of ICT’s Internet Policy

Written with the Iran Media Program.

Despite Rouhani’s promise to improve Internet policies in the Islamic Republic, the involvement of multiple stakeholders, such as the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC) and the Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI) poses a challenge. While the new Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad Vaezi is optimistic about instituting ICT improvements, many IT experts are skeptical and claim the hands of the Ministry are tied.

During a press conference at the beginning of September, Vaezi promised to increase bandwidth capacity within a year. He told reporters after a September 8th cabinet meeting that the Ministry already added 20 GB to international traffic and 15 GB to nation’s internal traffic and explained that he plans to build and develop infrastructure to support increasing the bandwidth. This was further clarified when the deputy minister declared on September 16th that a group of 400,000 households have been admitted to use Iran’s National Information Network (NIN), accessing a bandwidth of 2 Mbps, based on a decision from the SCC.

A disconnect exists between official reports of ICT improvement and public experience with those ICTs. A recent article by the Islamic Students’ News Agency (ISNA) reported complaints about slow Internet loading speeds, especially for foreign websites. Comments left by Iranian users on sites like ASL19’s Facebook page, and Twitter’s #filternet hashtag have given very little, if any feedback about improvements in Internet access. These complaints and lack of comments came after the Ministry touted improvements and Vaezi’s announcement about Internet speed increases of up to 28%.

To improve Iran’s ICT environment, experts are calling for private sector involvement with the hope that private companies will create a more competitive marketplace leading to lower prices for Internet access. IT specialist Soheil Mazlum says “if the monopoly over the bandwidth import is broken, the prices will be seven times cheaper.” Echoing Mazlum, the director of an IT company, identifying himself only as Raeesi, suggests that problems of Internet price and quality would be resolved if private companies are given the ability to distribute bandwidth. The ICT minister agrees with the experts on privatization, believing that “privatization is an important issue, which we must address during our time in office. In this new era, we see ourselves responsible for addressing people’s needs by development in modern technologies.”

Perhaps the greatest change in the new ICT minister’s approach has been an effective communications strategy. Vaezi opened channels of communication with the Iranian press that did not exist under the previous administration, such as by holding press conferences, which the Ministry of ICT had not done for 5 years. It is still early to determine whether concrete changes in Internet policy will be realized under Vaezi’s tenure, but it’s likely that the road to a more liberal ICT policy will be rocky.