Russians enjoy cheap and fast broadband, but the Internet freedom is very limited
By Daria Luganskaia
Igor Glotov, a software engineer at AnchorFree, an American company providing virtual private networks (VPN), struggles with the Internet in the US and misses the high-speed connection he enjoyed in Siberia.
“In the far-flung Siberian city where I grew up, you get an optic fiber cable installed directly in your flat, a personal modem and enjoy 1Gb unlimited internet. In Silicon Valley, I pay $75 per month for 75 Mbit from Comcast with all hidden costs, and the connection is still not reliable. Sometimes it does not work at all. I had to call for repairs three times and pay $40 for each visit. I am relatively lucky, though. In Miami, even 25Mbit from Comcast is a luxury, and in central states, where there is nothing but corn, Google has to volunteer and put its optic fiber,” he writes in a Facebook message to RuNet Explorer from San Jose.
“Russia has probably the best internet and mobile network you could imagine. Perhaps, it is better only in some hi-tech countries such as Japan. But if you think about the prices, Russia is the best, because the Internet is so cheap,” Glotov continues.
However, he prefers Silicon Valley with its troublesome Internet to Tomsk with its cheap and reliable network. Igor Glotov sold his startup TouchVPN, a mobile application for anonymous browsing, to Anchor Free and without hesitations moved to San Jose in 2015. Great weather is not the only reason. Glotov created a handy mobile application with VPN to make it easy for everyone use this kind of software.
The open-minded software engineer was annoyed by growing restrictions out on the Internet in Russia. The government has introduced a number of laws regulating the Internet in recent years. According to the NGO RosComSvoboda, over 500,000 websites have been unlawfully banned in Russia since 2012.
“I am as a citizen of the world can not tolerate all the content bans. I hate restrictions imposed globally and social injustice that those limitations bring. Only I grew up in a world where the Internet was available to all who had a computer connected to the global network, without censorship, moderation, and social segregation. Our goal at TouchVPN is to make content available for free and without prescription,” the 27-year-old engineer believes.
How do these two tendencies – technological advances and limitations on content – co-exist in Russia?
Most Russians are connected
Now a majority of Russia has access to the Web, and the access is gradually expanding. According to TNS Russia, the Internet penetration rate among Russians aged 12 and older, living in cities with over 100,000 inhabitants, reached 76 percent in 2016. It means that 85.9 million people in the country used the Internet at least once per month.
According to the data of the Public Opinion Foundation, the number of Russians going online every month grew to 69 percent or 80.5 million people. Whichever figures are used it is clear that over 60 percent of Russians have access to the Internet.
The Internet spreads across the country reaching even small and remote places.
Alexander Voronin, a 27-year-old from Novorzhev, a village with nearly 2,000 inhabitants in the North-West of the country, tells RuNet Explorer: “When I joined the social network Vkontakte right after high school, we still used our mobile phones as personal hotspots to have the Internet at home. Now Wi-Fi is common.” . Now he lives in Saint Petersburg, one of the largest cities in the country, and barely notices the difference in Internet speeds in those two places.
A 54-year-old Lilia Frolova, an engineer at the local office of Rostelecom, an internet provider in Novorzhev opens new accounts for people, including those of older generations every day. She personally uses Wi-Fi and mobile data on her smartphone and constantly chats with her daughter living abroad on WhatsApp.
However, the Internet penetration rate in Russia is lower than the scores of the global leaders. Luxembourg, the country with the highest Internet penetration rate – 98 percent of the population to be exact – have access to the Internet, according to Statista. Among the leading countries are also the Faroe Islands, Netherlands, Sweden, Monaco, Finland, United Kingdom, Qatar, Japan, or the US.
But Russia has a far higher speed and penetration of the Internet than other former Soviet republics. All these ex-Soviet countries, however, tried to make a transition from the state-run economy. While another communist country across the Atlantic Ocean, Cuba preserved its regime and command economy after the USSR collapsed.
Disconnected communist island
Now it is one of the outsiders in the connected world. In 2014, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Internet penetration in Cuba reached only 30 percent.
The Internet access is a luxury in Cuba.
“There is no monthly pay for the internet in Cuba. People who have the Internet at home, get it free because of their workplace. People without it at home, have to pay an hourly rate,” Ingrid Recio Jiménez, a postgraduate student of the University of Westminster from Cuba, explains to RuNet Explorer. The Cuban government has a list of professions and particular institutions that are provided with free unlimited access to the Internet. This “perk” from the state is available to doctors, universities, research institutions, diplomats, and most of the artists.
But even these privileged people hardly enjoy video streaming. The Cuban government provides them with dial-up only.
Ingrid was a lucky one to have free access to the Internet first, at the best university in the country – University of Havana. However, on a day-to-day basis, she had to wait because there were not enough computers on campus. After graduation, she was obliged to work for the government doing international sales. Thereby Ingrid Recio Jiménez, once again, managed to get access to the international network.
The Cuban people who do not fall into any of those categories literally go online. They leave their houses and sit in a street or a park with their smartphones and laptops while cats stroll around and children play games on the streets. Surrounded by street chaos, people sit there with their blue screens and connect with the rest of the world. That’s how public hotspots look like in Cuba.
It is not the biggest problem that you need to go outside to get online. The Cubans have to pay for the Internet such sums that hardly any resident of this island can afford.
The Cubans are charged two CUC or $2 per hour. To put it into context, the average salary in Cuba is 30 CUC or $30 per month. So for this amount of money you can spend 15 hours online or support yourself for the whole month. However, many people in the streets do exchange stickers via Facebook Messenger and make video calls. How is it possible?
“Many Cubans pay the hours thanks to their familiars overseas. I pay my family hours from London”, Ingrid explains.
However, Cuba is gradually opening its borders. Tourists arriving in 2016 have a chance to get access to the Internet. At any hot spot, you are likely to find people offering a card with credits to go online and pay per hour.
The role of monopoly
In Russia, by contrast, the Internet is cheap and fast.
On average, the cost of the Internet in Russia is US$6.06 for the speed of 3Mbps, as the local search engine Yandex calculated. This speed has limitations, for instance, it would be hard to watch online videos. But it is not a lion’s share of one’s salary. According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, the median monthly income of Russian citizens is $498.6 thereby people spend just about one percent of their income on the internet. But there are lots of citizens living below the poverty line who can’t get a sense of the Internet. In 2015, the national service for statistics, Rosstat, reported that 20.3 million Russians, i.e. about 14 percent of the population, are poor and that number is growing: the increase was two million compared to last year.
There are some far-flung places, especially in the eastern part of the country, where the prices are higher and speeds are lower. According to Yandex, the local search engine, the highest prices are paid by the inhabitants of such eastern cities as Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic, and Novy Urengoy – US$14.25-15 per month for unlimited Internet traffic.
The speed of Internet access in Russia is increasing. According to Akamai, Russia was one of 20 countries in the third quarter of 2015 with average connection speeds at, or above, 10 Mbps. This is 12 percent higher than in 2014. In terms of speed of access, Russia is far ahead of other post-Soviet states. However, it demonstrates significantly slower progress than leading countries. Sweden, the top-ranking state, has 17.4 Mbps connection speed on average with a 23 percent growth annual growth rate.
Sweden and other Nordic countries are also among the leaders in mobile Internet penetration. The first LTE networks were born in Stockholm and Oslo in 2009, and soon after the entire region took a leading role in developing the technology, the British analytical company OpenSignal explained in its latest report. In the UK, a rather more developed country, 4G networks may be fast, but they are just not available in many places, spokesperson for OpenSignal said via email.
The mobile penetration rate is steadily expanding as well. According to TNS, 57 percent of Russians aged 12 and older, living in cities with over 100,000 inhabitants, used mobile Internet at least once per month between February 2016 and April 2016. This compared with 52 percent in the previous year.
Mobile Internet is especially popular among young Russians. Over 90 percent of Russians aged 35 and older use mobile web, TNS reported. Smartphones are the most popular devices to access mobile Internet. 62 percent of Russians living in cities with over 100,000 inhabitants use smartphones. Only 34 percent access the mobile web via tablets and 9 percent via mobile phone. The share on desktops is still significant – 59 percent of Russians in this group use home computers, 53 percent – laptops.
Maxim Savvatin, a mobile analyst for iKS-Consulting, says to RuNet Explorer:
“The internet is highly developed in Russia. Europe is gradually moving from a digital subscriber line to optic fiber. In Russia, optic fiber has been the basic technology for many years. Historically, the Internet service providers in Europe were established on the base of big state companies. In Russia there are still many independent players.”
According to iKS-Consulting, the state-controlled Rostelecom had 36 percent market share; ER-Telecom had 10 percent; MTS had 9 percent and Vimpelcom had 6 percent. The remaining 39 percent market share is split among smaller, and local, ISPs. Rostelecom, however, plans to expand further, and will spend US$163 million (using yearly conversion rate for 2015; originally RUB 10 billion) on mergers and acquisitions to sustain and grow its market share. “Rostelecom is the most active ISP in its expansion in Russian regions. Vimpelcom has paused its regional growth. MTS is modernizing its existing networks. There are also big local players in many regions, for instance, in Ekaterinburg”, Savvatin adds.
Igor Glotov, the software engineer from Silicon Valley, believes the low competition on the telecom market in the US is the main reason for his constant fight for a reliable connection:
“The main problem with the internet in the United States is the monopoly held by Comcast. You can also get a DSL phone from the monopolist in phone industry AT&T, but there is a speed very low. Respectively, the country experiences all the disadvantages of a monopolized market.”
“Current enemy of the Internet”
Russia is very far from leaders in terms of Internet freedom. In 1999, Freedom House labeled it as “Partly Free” giving the score of 4.5 (the worst is 7). In 2015, the country is considered “Not free” with 6.0 ranking. The ranking of the country was decreasing gradually. The last year’s results Freedom House linked with “expanded media controls, a dramatically increased level of propaganda on state-controlled television, and new restrictions on the ability of some citizens to travel abroad.”
The Freedom on the Net index measures each country’s level of Internet based on 21 questions developed in consultation with international experts. Those questions fall into three categories: obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of user rights. Each question is scored on a range of points. A higher number of points are allotted for a less free environment.
According to Freedom House, Russia has joined the club of “Not Free” countries. Among those nearly 60 countries evaluated, 19 countries led by China and Iran are labeled as “Not Free.”
Another NGO, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), uses a less neutral term. Russia, according to this NGO, became one of a few “Current Enemies of the Internet” in 2014.
Every year the country receives poor results for the freedom of the press. In 2015, Word Press Index by RSF, put Russia in 152th place (four lines down).
The restrictions on the Internet are a relatively new phenomenon in Russia. This medium became more regulated since 2012 when massive protests against the results of the elections were organized, primarily through the Internet.
The government did not jump into political restrictions. Roskomnadzor, the regulatory body established in 2012 to control the Internet and media, started to blacklist websites for child pornography and other less controversial content. The procedure was introduced in the Federal Law “On Protection of Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development” regarding websites containing child pornography, promotion of drug use, and pro-suicide material. Now websites could be also banned for abuse of religious values, extremism and many other things. In other countries, such as the United Kingdom, the government stops at the control over pornography.
The government is interested in controlling the Web, because it is steadily gaining popularity. The majority of the population still relies on television, but trust in the Internet, especially social networks, is growing, according to data from the Public Opinion Foundation. According to the opinion poll published on January 25, 2016, 48% of the Russians trust the news they see online, and among those, 56% think there is a difference between TV and online news coverage.
The tendency to control the Web continued following the conflict in Ukraine. In 2015, for instance, the law that increased penalties for the dissemination of extremism on social media led to its first prison sentences. The authorities put pressure both on Russian and international sites, such as Wikipedia, by issuing warnings that could lead to complete blocking of websites. Moreover, the regulator is reportedly building an automatic system that would look for abusive content on the online publications. “The right to be forgotten” resulted in dozens of appeals to search engines, often about hiding criminal pasts.
However, criticism from the industry is rarely heard by the government. In June 2016, a draconian legislation, so-called “anti-terrorist” law that would make ISPs and the Internet companies keep data of messages and calls for months, passed the parliament. It is likely to “reverse the trend of development of the Russian internet and telecom industry”, the Secretary of the Working Group on International Information Security and Global Internet Governance under PIR Center Advisory Board Oleg Demidov told RuNet Explorer.