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In turnabout, Iran speeding up the Internet

Tight controls, slow service hurt Web commerce

TEHRAN — Only a handful of countries rival Iran for having the slowest Internet speeds. Simple online tasks can take hours, infuriating some who see the sluggishness as emblematic of a broader paralysis.

‘‘The way they block bandwidth here is like a virtual dam,’’ said Reza Mohammady, a Web designer.

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But now Iran is promising to change. “The work has already begun,’’ President Hassan Rouhani said recently, ‘‘and by the grace of God, it will continue.’’

By the end of March, the government says, average bandwidth will double — although even that step would leave Iran ranked about 135th in the world, up from 170th, according to comparisons published by Netindex.com.

It is in many ways a surprising turnabout for Iran, which has spent years tightly controlling all Internet services, whether private or state-owned. The country has kept speeds in check while filtering access to sites it deems politically dangerous.

But now Rouhani himself seems to be acknowledging that those restrictions have been counterproductive, in part as barriers to Internet commerce.

‘‘We are still very far behind,’’ Nasrollah Jahangard, the deputy minister of communication and information technology, said recently. The average speed of 2 megabytes per second ranks Iran just behind Belize. Hong Kong, the world leader, boasts an average of 72 mbps; the US ranks 31st, at about 21 mbps.

With a population of 76 million, Iran has by far the highest total number of Internet users in the Middle East.

About half of all Iranian households have Internet access. It can take hours, though, to download a video clip or access an online bank account, and Internet access is often disrupted without explanation .

While many problems persist, speeds have accelerated since last summer, after the presidential election that installed Rouhani and has been accompanied by moves toward greater openness.

Internet merchants here say the new government measures to improve access are already having a positive impact on electronic commerce.

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