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The Internet in Afghanistan

Written by  Zakaria Hassan
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Zakaria HassanIssue:Asia-Pacific III 2007
Article no.:1
Topic:The Internet in Afghanistan
Author:Zakaria Hassan
Title:Chairman
Organisation:Afghanistan Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, ATRA
PDF size:260KB

About author

Mr Zakaria Hassan is the Chairman of Afghanistan Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, ATRA. Prior to joining ATRA as a member of the Regulatory Board, Mr Hassan was the Head of the Telecommunications Department at Siemens-Afghanistan. Mr Hassan has also been the National Director of the Afghan Wireless Communication Company, AWCC, a Technical Advisor to the Minister of Communications in Afghanistan and a university lecturer. Mr Hassan is a Member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, MIEE, and registered as a Chartered Engineer (C.Eng.) with the Engineering Council, London, United Kingdom. The Telecommunications Training Centre, Kabul, certified Mr Zakaria Hassan as an Engineering Technician. He obtained his Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng.) degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from Brighton Polytechnic (UK) and his Master’s Degree (M.Sc.) in Telecommunications Technology from Aston University, England.

 

Article abstract

After many years of war, Afghanistan is struggling to build a modern ICT infrastructure to meet the needs of its citizens and businesses. A high-priority programme to bring telecom services and private investment to the country began, based upon the Ministry of Communications’ recommendations. Much was done even before appropriate regulations were in place, but the growth in telecommunications was impressive. The sector is now regulated and the Regulatory Authority, ATRA, is actively promoting the growth of services in the country.

 

Full Article

Background Afghanistan was at war from 1978 to 2001. During the war, all of Afghanistan’s resources were directed to military activities and all the other sectors - such as telecommunications, education, development activities, public health care and so on - were ignored. During this period, Afghanistan could not take advantage of the developments that were happening in the ICT sector worldwide. The Internet was banned in Afghanistan by the Taliban. International organizations working in Afghanistan were using satellite telephones to access Internet services that were located outside the country. The UN agencies used Codan satellite systems to transmit text messages between their offices in Afghanistan and their main offices, which were mainly located in Pakistan. Until the end of 2001, the telecommunications services were the government monopoly and the private sector could not operate telecom networks for public voice, data or multimedia services. The Taliban government in Afghanistan was recognized by only three countries and just one country had an embassy in Afghanistan. The UN Security Council imposed a ban on trade with Afghanistan, which included restrictions on the export of telecommunications equipment to Afghanistan. Modern telecommunications services were a distant hope and the people of Afghanistan could not imagine that the ICT sector would subsequently develop so rapidly. After the arrival of the current regime in late 2001, Afghanistan was embraced by the international community and the reconstruction of Afghanistan began immediately. The successful presidential and parliamentary elections in 2004 and 2005 were significant milestones in the rehabilitation of the government structure. The rehabilitation of the ICT sector started in January 2002. At that time there were no laws that would allow the private sector to offer the Internet or other telecom services in Afghanistan. In order to resolve this problem, as a matter of urgency, the Ministry of Communications, MoC - now the Ministry of Communications Information Technology, MCIT, asked for a presidential decree that would let the Ministry bring private investment to the ICT sector and issue licences giving private operators the right to provide telecom services in Afghanistan. The advantages and disadvantages of bringing in the private sector as a matter of urgency by presidential decree are given in table 1. Despite certain disadvantages, the overall result was very good and the benefits of this swift liberalization of the telecom market for the ordinary Afghans outweighed the disadvantages. The policy of the MoC, and the subsequent regulatory decisions, have provided the right environment for private investment in the ICT sector in Afghanistan. It is worth noting that the private sector was the only option available for the development of the ICT sector in Afghanistan, because the government had no funds for the ICT sector; and the international community that supported the reconstruction activities in Afghanistan did not consider it a priority. The issue of the telecom/ICT sector was even taken out of the National Development Strategy, NDS, of Afghanistan. Legislations and regulation The telecom/ICT sector was the first to embrace the free market economy in Afghanistan and to embark on the reform of this sector. The focus of the MoC was to develop the telecom sector as speedily as possible. The MoC aimed to give the government and the citizens of Afghanistan access to telecom services by increasing teledensity from 0.05 per cent to 20 per cent within eight years. The main constraints with this way of meeting this challenging target were the laws that restricted private investment in the telecom sector, the security risk felt by the private investors, the creation of an encouraging investment environment and a licensing regime. The Ministry of Communications utilized the decree and decisions of the President to facilitate the issuance of the first two GSM licences. The MoC established an interim regulatory authority within its structure to handle the licensing issues. As there was no law governing the private sector for ICT, the MoC established Quality of Service, QoS, criteria, instituted rules for the protection of consumer rights, and organized the roll out of the network and changes to the licence conditions according to expected changes in the country’s laws. The terms and conditions for GSM licences were used to regulate the operations of the two GSM licencees. The Ministry of Communications put into place an ICT policy, which enabled it to draw up its five-year development plan for the ICT sector. This policy, finalized in November 2003, can be found on the www.mcit.gov.af website. The expert advice of the ITU played an important role in the development of the policy. World Bank and USAID also provided financial support for hiring experts for the development of drafts of policy and the Telecommunications Law. The Telecommunications Services Regulation Law of Afghanistan, TSRLA, took about two years to be processed by the Ministry of Justice; approved by the Cabinet it was finally issued by the President of Afghanistan in December 2005 and is available on the MCIT website www.mcit.gov.af. Based on the provisions of this law, the Afghanistan Telecommunications Regulator Authority, ATRA, was established in 2006. The ATRA is responsible for the implementation of the TSRLA. The law, drawn up based on international best practices, establishes the powers of the Regulatory Authority, competition, conflict resolution, public consultation and the decision-making process of ATRA, licensing issues, tariffs, competition, significant market power, SMP, consumer protection, interconnection, right of way, numbering plan, frequency spectrum issues, universal access, approval of telecom equipment, penalties in case of breaches and other issues as well. The TSRLA has given powers to ATRA to protect consumers, private investment, the interest of the government in regard to revenues, and enforce the universal access obligations and the implementation of the applicable laws. After the establishment of the Afghanistan Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, the problem that existed in regard to interconnection agreements was referred to ATRA. The law specifies that call termination rates shall be cost based. Accordingly, ATRA issued a decision determining the call termination rates and the rates for transit traffic. The SMP, significant market power, operator has appealed against the decision of ATRA; the question is currently being handled in accordance with the provision of Telecommunication Services Regulation Law of Afghanistan. Additionally, ATRA has adopted a Code of Practice that provides guidelines for the interactions between ATRA, operators, other government agencies and the consumers. The Code of Practice provides procedures for different issues, such as submission of a licence application, official correspondences, appeals, motions, complaints, public consultation, record keeping and other issues. The present situation The ICT policy formed the basis for the development of the sector, including the law, licensing and the establishment of the Regulatory Authority. The investment environment has been very encouraging. Investment in the GSM, fixed and Internet networks exceeded US$800 million at the end of August 2007. A comparison of the telecom/ICT sector in Afghanistan between January 2002 and June 2007 is given in table 2. Investment in the Internet networks is rather small and the ISPs have not been able to offer cheap CPE, customer premise equipment, and usage charges to their customers. For this reason, the Internet subscriber base is very low and only large organizations can afford to subscribe to it. The GSM operators realized that the wireless access CPE and the installation costs (between US$1,000 and US$4,000) and the monthly subscription to the Internet (about US$600 for a 128 kbps up/down link) were much too costly for the average person. The GSM operators have now started to fill this gap in the market by deploying GPRS technology to provide affordable Internet access. ICT rates in Afghanistan The rates for ICT services are still considered very high by many in Afghanistan, including the Parliamentary Committee that is responsible for the ICT sector. The use of satellites for long-distance and international communication is the major reason for these high prices. The terrestrial microwave networks of the GSM operators are still under development, but are widely available for lease. MCIT has signed a contract for the implementation of a 3600km long optical fibre cable, OFC, project with a multinational company. The value of the OFC project is about US$65 million. The implementation of this project started in early 2007 and will be completed in mid 2009. This infrastructure project will improve national and international connectivity and will have a very significant role in bringing prices down. The impact of the Internet Young people in Afghanistan have shown a strong interest in ICT. The Ministry of Education has started a programme that will facilitate access to learning how to use computers and the Internet throughout the country. The Universal Access obligations programme of the government, implemented by MCIT/ATRA, is in the process of mobilising to extend ICT services to remote areas in the country. However, the private sector is far ahead of the public sector in providing computer training and deploying ICT equipment in remote areas in the country. There are more than 500 training centres/institutes for basic computer training in Afghanistan that teach Windows, MS-Office, computer networking, programming languages, etc. Young Afghan entrepreneurs run most of these training centres. The MCIT has taken the lead to establish the National Information and Communication Council of Afghanistan, NCTCA. The council will be a coordinating body to gather support from governmental organizations, the private sector and civil society for the implementation of the government’s ICT policy and strategy. The MCIT has also initiated its Chief Information Officer, CIO, programme. Under this programme every governmental organization will have a CIO responsible for the organization’s ICT activities; the CIO will work in coordination with the IT Directorate of MCIT. Investment opportunities, Afghanistan has a population of about 30 million and a territory of 647,500km2; its per capita GDP was about US$350 in 2006. The telecom/ICT market is young, but expanding very rapidly. The majority of the ISP licencees have chosen to target those corporate customers that can afford the costly CPE, high installation costs and high monthly subscriptions, but the corporate subscriber market now seems saturated. Providing Internet services for the high-level residential subscriber can be good business for innovative investors with a long-term commitment to doing business in Afghanistan, and can offer low-cost technology for the CPE and low cost-subscription charges. MCIT/ATRA offers a Local Fixed Services Provider, LFSP, licence regime to potential service providers; they recommend licencees use WLL/CDMA 2000 technology for this licence category. The LFSP licencees can provide voice, data and multimedia services to their subscribers under terms and conditions that can be found on the MCIT website. Afghanistan will offer WiMAX licences this year. ATRA intends to auction these WiMAX licences for broadband services. UMTS licensing is under consideration; licensing is planned for 2008.

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