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Celluar service being rebuilt in Afghanistan

Wednesday, June 26, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan -- It was one ring too many.

Foreign Minister Abdullah abruptly descended the podium after repeatedly asking journalists to turn off their mobile phones, and still they rang. His annoyance might be considered a sign of progress: the use of cell phones is spreading in Afghanistan.

More than two months after cellular service was introduced in the capital, mobile phones have become a business tool for the moneychangers in Kabul's crowded bazaar, who make regular calls to neighboring Pakistan to get the latest exchange rates.

But the wireless devices, considered essential accessories in many parts of the world, are mostly used by the elite in Afghanistan -- businessmen, power brokers and exiles returning from abroad.

Saifullah Farkirzallah was the first person in his Kabul neighborhood to get one; he uses it to call his cousin in Canada.

He used to travel all the way to Pakistan to make the same call, like many Afghans who wanted to talk to relatives abroad during the civil war.

"People ask me to use it all the time," Farkirzallah said, sitting in the window of his jewelry shop, puzzling over the English-language directory in his new phone and trying to set the local time. "A friend ... had it until 10 a.m., and my colleague is taking it tonight to call Iran."

For more than a generation in Afghanistan, phone service has been spotty, and in the last few years virtually nonexistent

Rebuilding phone network

Over two decades of war, the nation's network of phone lines were excavated by fighters digging trenches and eventually stripped for copper by scavengers. During the 1990s, the country's international dialing code -- 93 -- was sold, a demoralizing blow to a decrepit system.

It was recovered in 1999, but still few of the country's fixed line telephones can receive calls from abroad.

Kabul's 7,000 working analog telephones can't connect with 5,000 phones on the 2-year-old digital system installed under the Taliban. There are just 12,000 functioning telephones in a city approaching 2 million people.

But that's better than the national average of one phone per 1,000 Afghans, calculated two years ago by UNESCO.

"Ninety percent of the infrastructure was destroyed during the 23 years of war," Mohammed Gul Khalmi, the Afghan official in charge of telecommunications said glumly in his bare office in the Communications Ministry.

The analog system, installed more than 45 years ago by the German firm Siemens, is beyond repair. Siemens has recently looked for parts to interface with the old system but they just don't exist, Khalmi said.

One of Khalmi's first priorities after taking the job under Hamid Karzai's interim administration was to connect government offices and enable overseas calls from his ministry and the Kabul airport.

But no such effort will be made elsewhere in the system. The fixed line network has been so thoroughly decimated that the Ministry of Communication's official policy for restoring private phone service is to bring in mobile communications.

The first mobile network, Afghan Wireless, launched April 6 when Karzai placed a call to an Afghan refugee living in Germany.

Just two months later, the nation's thirst for telecommunications became apparent during the loya jirga, the grand council that met this month to choose a new leadership. All week, delegates jabbering into cellular and satellite phones strolled the sunny plaza outside the meeting.

Over the long term, reliable telecommunications is considered critical to knitting back together a nation long divided.

"I think it's going to be significant in the ability to recreate a national identity in Afghanistan. That is how people relate to each other -- by talking," said Alexander Thier of the International Crisis Group.

"One of the things that will be extremely important is the ability of people to communicate, to see what people of other provinces think, to build allegiances with them," he said.

Afghan Wireless, in partnership with the Afghan government, is the only mobile phone operator in Afghanistan. But the communications ministry said the market will be open to other providers to encourage competition.

With initial service in Kabul, Afghan Wireless is expanding this week to Herat in the west, and within eight weeks to Mazar-e-Sharif, Kandahar and Jalalabad.

Ehsan Bayat, an Afghan-American investor who helped launch Afghan Wireless, said service eventually will extend to 25 provincial cities and along major highways. The biggest obstacle remains the absence of reliable electricity.

While the cell phone has enjoyed a mostly enthusiastic debut in Afghanistan, they remain unaffordable for most people. Government workers earn an average of $40 a month, while startup fees for a mobile phone can run up to $350 with a monthly service fee of $12.


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