Almaty 1993: First Steps to Join the Modern Telecoms World

Current Photo of former Central Post Office

I don’t always try to engage in conversation with my seating neighbors on an airplane.  Work often demands my attention, or I opt to use this enforced idle time to catch up on some reading.  Yet, on short flights, such as from London to Paris, there is precious little time for work or reading.

So it was on such a flight in April of 2004 that I tried to converse with my neighbor whose outward garb and considerable beard strongly suggested that he was not only Muslim but probably a cleric.  This was shortly after France had banned the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in state-operated schools.  The ban applied to all religious symbols but was widely interpreted as aimed at headscarves worn by Muslim school girls.  The ban had provoked widespread protests.

It might have been best not to raise the subject with my neighbor but I proceeded to ask for his opinion about the ban.  His quick reply was: “If they don’t want to live by the rules of the country they are in, they should go home.”  I thought I had just opened up what might be an interesting conversation on assimilation and the success or failure of multiculturalism in Europe.  However, the man, having replied to my question, turned aside, seeking the solitude that I had apparently interrupted.  We continued the journey in silence.

Long-haul flights, such as Frankfurt to Almaty, leave time for conversation as well as for work or reading.  In 1993, conversation with other passengers was very, very common.  People who had never before been to Kazakhstan wanted the inside dope.  They wanted impressions of what it was like, and they also sought practical information, such as where to stay or how to get from the airport to their destination.

On one long, overnight flight in April 1993, I learned a lot about the telephone system in Almaty (then still called Alma-Ata).  This probably is information you don’t need to know – mind cluttering stuff you might say – but it is a bit interesting as part of the history of the emergence of Kazakhstan into the modern world.

I was already aware that Almaty was operating with outmoded telecommunication equipment.  Hotels, for example, did not have internal switchboards through which they could receive outside phone calls for guests which the hotel’s operator would then put through to the appropriate room or, if no one answered, would take a message.  Instead, the call went straight to the room.  Indeed, if the hotel receptionist wanted to phone one of the guests, he or she had to dial the phone number for the room in the same way that someone elsewhere in the city would dial.

Calls from an Almaty number to another city had to go through an operator unless the caller was fortunate enough to be able to pay for a priority, inter-city telephone line.

International calls were even more difficult to make.  Only a small number of telephones were capable of direct dialling a foreign number, and those phones competed for the use of a very small number of international lines.

There was concern that the secret police monitored calls, particularly international calls.  Some thought the reason there were so few international lines was because the secret police lacked sufficient multi-lingual staff to monitor more lines.  I was told on several occasions that I needed to be careful about what I said even while on the local phone, not that I had anything to say that would attract attention.

Much of what I already knew was put in perspective by my seatmate on a flight from Frankfurt to Alma Ata.  He was a computer programmer with heavy experience in Eastern Europe in installing the software necessary to operate major AT&T switches for telephone systems.

AT&T concentrated product development in England and production in Holland.  The company had been very active in Eastern Europe in selling on credit, often in risky circumstances.  The govern­ments couldn’t afford to pay in accordance with the purchase terms, but AT&T didn’t complain too strenuously because competition was very stiff, and they keenly sought to dominate this business by starting with a “foot in the door” entry project.

The new equipment in Alma-Ata would be capable of handling 100,000 calls per hour.  By comparison, the old equipment required two months to handle that many calls.

The programmer confirmed to me that, in many parts of the former Soviet Union, everyone had a phone but they could be used only for local calls going through post office exchange equipment that had been discarded in the United States in the 1940s.  Some of these phones could be switched to modern service once the central exchange was upgraded.

My flying companion mentioned that the new equipment will automatically treat all installed phones as international whether or not the customer was charged for a priority phoneline.  However, the local phone manager in Almaty wanted to limit the number of phones with automatic international access.  This was not to enable the telephone company to charge more money for the priority lines.  What the manager sought was to reduce the number of calls going out on what were still too few lines so as to ensure that government officials would be able to make their calls without having to compete for the use of overloaded interna­tional lines.

Needless to say, the technician wanted the telephone company to take the open market solution by getting more lines.

When I opened our law office in Almaty, we had only one telephone line for three lawyers, three translators and our chief accountant.  And it was a local line.  We didn’t expect to make many international phone calls as our head office was in the United States, but we did need to send lots of fax messages, and we had to be able to contact clients in Europe.

To send the faxes, we were required to take them to the central communicastion center (where the AT&T equipment was being installed, though I didn’t know that at the time), and register each fax which would then be sent by post office personnel.  They eventually returned the fax to us with a slip showing that it had been transmitted successfully.  We desperately needed an international line.

The photo above. from, shows the modern-day appearance of the building to which we took our faxes and where the AT&T equipment was being installed.  It’s that post-Modernist Soviet structure located behind the Alma-Ata Hotel which is near and across the street from the Opera House.  The prominent KazTeleCom name and its logos are latter-day additions to the building.  The external piping is not necessasry for the structure but is there for additional support against earthquake damage.  It’s no good allowing the main telecoms center of a major city to be knocked out of action.

I asked the technician if there was a particular person we should deal with in order to obtain international phone service at our office.  He said this was the very guy he dealt with at the telephone exchange.

This local manager was described as being quite changeable, swinging in mood or constant­ly pushing AT&T to skip phases of the work in order to speed up the installation.  He also had an entrepreneurial bent – he rented out telephone exchange floor space for some commercial operation, and he had either sold or found another use for the spare set of batteries that AT&T had supplied as emergency back-up for the telephone exchange when repairs were carried out on parts of their equipment.

We contacted the guy and ended up paying a cash fee in U.S. dollars in the amount, as I recall it, of U.S. $1,200.  This ostensibly was for the simple task of detaching our wire from the city-only exchange mechanism and soldering it to the international machine.  No receipt was given.  It didn’t take much imagination to conclude that the local manager knew he was a gate keeper and had learned how to charge a handsome toll for his “services”.

Kazakhstan contracted with AT&T for four new exchang­es but work was underway on only one of them.  AT&T lost a lot of money in 1992 through the operations of its Dutch company so the head office was not anxious to accelerate more loss-making activity while awaiting payment from cash-strapped countries.  Like everyone else doing business in Kazakhstan in 1993, AT&T was waiting for the oil revenue to start flowing.

AT&T had five engineers permanently stationed in Alma-Ata to work on this installation.  All came from England.  They rented two apartments at reasonable prices — $200 to $300 per month was mentioned.  The engineers did some of their own shopping and cooking.  However, they also spent consid­erable time at what was then known simply as the Korean restaurant at the Hotel Kazakhstan or at the new Italian restaurant across the street at the International Business Center.

As for the technician, he stayed at the Otrar Hotel, which charged $50 a night, breakfast included.  The hotel was conveniently located only two blocks away from the telephone exchange.


Interested in more stories about Kazakhstan in the 1990s?  Buy my book – West Meets East in Kazakhstan.  It’s available in printed form or in e-book format through the publisher, AuthorHouse, or Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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