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Afghanistan: First Commercial Mobile-Phone Network Launched

  • Ron Synovitz

The reconstruction of Afghanistan took an important step forward over the weekend with the launch of the country's first commercial mobile-phone network. The network is now available only in Kabul, but plans call for it to be extended to four other Afghan cities: Kandahar, Herat, Jalalabad, and Mazar-i-Sharif.

Prague, 8 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The importance of the first commercial mobile-phone system for Afghanistan was demonstrated by the high-ranking government officials who attended a weekend ceremony marking the launch of the network.

The first phone call on the new system was made on 6 April by Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai. From Kabul, he phoned Afghanistan's ambassador to the United Nations in New York.

The new cellular telephone network is being built by the Afghan Wireless Communication Company -- a firm that is jointly owned by the Afghan government and a U.S.-based firm called Telephone Services International. The network is being jointly operated by AWCC and Afghanistan's Ministry of Communications.

Karzai's phone call was not the first mobile call to be made from within Afghanistan. In February, the Swedish firm Ericsson gave about 200 mobile phones to members of Karzai's interim administration, as well as to UN officials in Kabul and nongovernmental organizations that are involved in emergency relief efforts. But the Ericsson system -- with its limited capacity and temporary, six-month operating schedule -- has never been envisioned as a telephone network for ordinary Afghans.

Karzai's call to New York was the first to be made on a network that is available to any ordinary Afghan who has the money to purchase a mobile phone and a pre-paid calling card.

AWCC managing director Gavin Jeffery describes the launch of the new phone system as a crucial step toward rebuilding the Afghan economy through better communications and access to information. "A reliable telecommunications service is a necessary part of the work of rebuilding the economy. We are working with the Ministry of Communications to provide a facility for training Afghans -- both for ourselves and for the wider community -- not only in telecommunications but in all aspects of business and commercial activity."

Jeffery explains that AWCC's initial plan is for people to access national and international telephone services by buying a pre-paid calling card. Those who cannot afford the $350 charged for the special mobile phones also can use the system by making calls from public telephone offices being set up across the country. "We've gone for essentially a pre-paid platform. So people who want to use our services will be able to buy telephones from our outlets. And they will be able to buy refresh cards as, and when, they want to top out their account to make calls."

While the system is now available only to callers in Kabul, Jeffery said his firm is already working to establish the network in Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Mazar-i-Sharif. "Our future plan initially is to get the GSM system rolled out to the five cities. We will also be launching within a couple of weeks an upgraded international system which will give us high-speed data connection throughout Kabul and the rest of the country. Following on from that, we'll be installing voice and data capability in each of the provincial capitals throughout the country."

So far, Jeffery says, AWCC has already spent about $50 million on building the mobile-phone network. "To date, we've invested around $50 million. This covers the equipment that we have already installed in Kabul, equipment for Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, which is already on site -- and site preparation has begun for those installations -- and also for the equipment for Jalalabad and Kandahar, which is being assembled in the United States as we speak."

The schedule contained in the AWCC business plan calls for Jalalabad to be hooked up to the network in May and linkups in three other Afghan cities to be available by the end of this year. Internet cafes are also planned for each of the five Afghan cities that will eventually be covered by the network. The first Internet cafe is due to open in Kabul in July.

Telecommunication services for both the government and private businesses are critical to the success of reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. Authorities at the Afghan National Bank are now struggling to modernize their banking system without the ability to connect computers to the outside world.

Officials at the central bank told RFE/RL that their lack of computer links is making it difficult to complete even rudimentary banking tasks. One key task for the bank is to create a method of transferring millions of dollars of promised reconstruction aid into Kabul from abroad.

So far, without a reliable wire-transfer system, none of the $4.5 billion promised in January at the Tokyo international donors conference has been delivered.

The Afghan mobile-phone project was spearheaded by Ehsan Bayat, an Afghan emigre who has lived in the United States since 1979. Bayat founded Telephone Services International in the United States after he was first approached about the project in 1995.

But TSI was blocked from working on the mobile-phone network under the economic embargo that was imposed against the Taliban in the late 1990s.

Since the fall of the Taliban and the subsequent lifting of the international embargo, TSI has brought together technologies from several U.S. firms, including WorldCom, TECORE Wireless Systems and AirNet Communications Corporation. Bayat says, "Two years down the road, we're going to have over 2,000 Afghans employed by this company and we'll be less reliant on foreign experts. And I think by then, we will have played our own role in rebuilding the economy."

Jeffery says the project has been moving ahead at an extraordinary pace since last December: "The first plans were not actually drawn until some time during December. The first shipments of equipment into the country arrived in mid-February and we're [launching the system] here at the beginning of April, which means we've gone from nothing to an operational system in about three and a half months."

Indeed, officials at Ericsson say they have also experienced considerable challenges trying to implement a communications system in Afghanistan. They note that the poor condition of roads and electrical systems, as well as the unreliable existing land-line telephone network, have left most Afghans virtually cut off from the rest of the world.

Foreign journalists that have been sending stories and photographs out of Afghanistan in recent months have been relying on expensive and bulky satellite telephones. The most reliable satellite phones cost nearly $8 a minute to use.

But AWCC officials say they hope that their lower-priced network will make the system more accessible to Afghans. A mobile call from Kabul to London on the AWCC network costs users about $0.50 per minute.