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ST OnLine Start protest put on hold

A protest launched by private Internet providers against state telecom provider Slovenské Telekomunikácie (ST) has been called off - for the time being. Both the providers and the ministry itself warn that the protest will resume if ST does not strictly adhere to the terms of a settlement reached over a week ago.
ST, the Association of Internet Providers (API), Telecom Ministry representatives and the anti-monopoly office met on March 17 in an attempt to hash out a satisfactory settlement for all sides involved in the dispute over ST's Internet service "OnLine Start," which had been launched on February 1.


API founder Frank Petro says he is serious about stripping Slovenské Telekomunikácie of its monopoly
photo: Chris Togneri

A protest launched by private Internet providers against state telecom provider Slovenské Telekomunikácie (ST) has been called off - for the time being. Both the providers and the ministry itself warn that the protest will resume if ST does not strictly adhere to the terms of a settlement reached over a week ago.

ST, the Association of Internet Providers (API), Telecom Ministry representatives and the anti-monopoly office met on March 17 in an attempt to hash out a satisfactory settlement for all sides involved in the dispute over ST's Internet service "OnLine Start," which had been launched on February 1.

The API, formed in protest of OnLine Start on February 25, had complained that ST, which has a monopoly over fixed line voice communication and thus over almost all access to the Internet, had introduced a service which contained serious security flaws, unfair pricing and misleading advertising. At the meeting, ST was given until the end of March to address the aforementioned issues while, in return, the API agreed to immediately drop its protest.

Stanislav Vanek, director of the regulatory department of the Telecom Ministry, explained that the agreement between the quarrelling sides was a "temporary settlement" and that further meetings will be held in the near future.

"It was agreed that ST would analyse documents concerning security and exclude all safety flaws," Vanek said. "Furthermore, they must balance Internet access costs so that it is equal for all customers. They have until the end of March to do so."

If ST does not follow the guidelines laid at the March 17 meeting, Vanek said, the API may continue its protest which blocks access to certain Internet sites for OnLine Start users.

The API has not yet decided if they will in fact continue the protest in the form of Internet site blockades. API founder Frank Petro said that they may consider alternative forms of protest and have already begun collecting signatures for a petition that could ultimately strip ST of its voice communication monopoly status (see API, page 1).

At ST headquarters, Project and Services Manager Pavol Bojňanský reported that his firm felt "quite satisfied" with the outcome of the meeting and added that the problems outlined in the temporary settlement would be addressed.

"We will change the prices so that they will not discriminate against non-ST users, and all safety concerns will be fixed by the end of March," he said.

Sticking points

One of the points of contention for the API, said Juraj Toma, president and CEO of Internet provider JKM Group International, was that OnLine Start's marketing campaign was misleading, promising cheaper prices when, in fact, ST's service was more expensive than advertised.

"They said it cost two crowns [$.05] per impulse, like a telephone connection," he said. "But the impulses for the Internet are only 90 seconds while they are at least 120 seconds for telephone connections."

In the face of such criticism, Bojňanský called the API protest illegal and said that the decision to conclude the Internet access blockade had been expected. "What they were doing was against the law. Had the blockade continued, many of their licenses would have been taken away."

The ministry's Vanek agreed with the API that ST had abused its power as a voice communication monopoly, and said that the recent moves were aimed at rectifying a situation that had created an unfair advantage for ST.

"Our responsibility is to ensure that ST enjoys a voice-communication monopoly," he said. "But the Internet is not voice, and many problems existed. We had to address this because our job is to ensure a fair Slovak Internet market for private Internet providers."

Vanek also sounded a word of warning to Bojňanský and ST, cautioning that if the state-run telecom monopoly does not follow through on its March 17 promises, immediate action will be taken by the ministry.

"It was unclear if OnLine Start created unfair conditions," he said. "But the meeting brought the issues to the forefront and we agree with the API's complaints. We at the ministry will stop OnLine Start ourselves if ST does not solve the problems - and there are a lot of problems."

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