Russia will soon get a new cellular carrier, namely “Voentelekom” which specializes in secure telecommunications for the government. That reports Vedomosti. Voentelekom literally translates as something like “Military Telecom”, which accurately reflects what the company is about.
In technical terms, the company will become a virtual provider utilizing the network of Tele2. This means that Voentelekom has a good coverage in the entire country. The initial goal is to provide cellular connections for military cities, but there is nothing stopping them from expanding to a broader audience.
Apparently, Voentelekom will receive status as a Full MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator). This means that they get full control over all technology related to the service except the cellular radio networks. In other words, Voentelekom only relies on Tele2 for the physical installations of antennas and their assigned frequencies in the cellular bands. Everything related to processing of the digital signals is handled by Voentelekom.
This gives obvious advantages when it comes to data security. For example, the company can install encryption software to provide more secure transmissions. But it also means that Voentelekom can filter and monitor the online traffic. In other words, if the Russian military gets their employees on this network, they get more or less full control over what information these people can find on the internet, and they get to snoop on whatever soldiers do with their phone. They can also use geolocation to follow the whereabouts of military employees.
As some market analysts note in Vedemosti’s article, Voentelekom doesn’t provide anything that a normal person would find useful in their daily life. However, they still expect Voentelekom to become a hugely successful cellular provider. Obviously, the government may be a big customer, but there are also different possibilities that could make Voentelekom an attractive choice for military personnel and their families. One such option is to make sure that Voentelekom is the only provider of cellular connections in military cities. The company already provides landline internet access in these places, so it would be a natural next step to include cellular. This way, the government would have more or less complete control over whatever soldiers and their families do online.
Another possibility is that the Defense Ministry can allow employees to bring smartphones to work if they are on Voentelekom’s service. The Defense Ministry has fought a long battle against smartphones at work, but some employees have continued to use their devices in secret. Perhaps Voentelekom can provide a middle ground where people get to use their smartphones at work, and the government maintains control over security.
The establishment of Voentelekom as a cellular provider can be seen as part of the Russian government’s campaign to gain greater control in the information sphere. Last year, they introduced guidelines which restricted soldiers’ online behavior, and recently this has been elevated into law. And just last Friday, a much debated “fake news” law and a ban of disrespectful expressions against society and government symbols came into force. The problem with these laws, of course, is that the government will decide what constitutes fake news or disrespectful expressions. They have also waged a war against encrypted messaging apps like Telegram and discussed possibilities of isolating the Russian part of the internet – the so-called Runet – from the rest of the world.
So history indicates that the Russian government’s motivation for creating its own cellular carrier may not only be about protecting their employees against foreign intelligence. It may just as much be about enforcing greater control over their own population and instruments of power.