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Thursday, 5 December, 2002, 13:48 GMT
Afghanistan looks to digital future
Ruins in Kabul
Wireless networks hold the key to communications
Afghanistan is about to get its second cellphone network, at a time when few outside a handful of cities in the war-ravaged country have access to any communications at all.

By the end of this year, the government will award a licence to a consortium including the Aga Khan's Fund for Economic Development, French phone equipment maker Alcatel, Monaco Telecom and US operator MCT.

The licence to cover the six main cities of Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Jalalabad and Kunduz will create some competition with the existing network, run by US company TCI.

But while the cellular infrastructure is important, the country's Minister of Communications told BBC News Online, the overall priority was to take a country with only 40,000 phone lines into the digital age.

"Capacity is very low and demand very high," said Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai.

Rapid development of communications is key to reconstructing the country, he said.

Companies and aid agencies needed international communications - and expatriate Afghans with much-needed skills would only return if they could stay in touch with their families elsewhere.


Years of strife have left Afghanistan's communications in tatters, Mr Stanekzai said.

But he blamed neglect, rather than direct destruction, for most of the telecoms decline.

A ruined street in Kabul
Appearances aside, cellular reception is pretty good

"Everyone needs communications," he told BBC News Online from the International Telecom Union's Asia Telecom show in Hong Kong.

"Even in the past... when power changed from one hand to another the communications were not damaged."

Together with the new national army the government announced in November, that factor should ensure that the new networks Afghanistan is planning remain intact.

Running the show

The cellular network - representing an initial investment of $55m, with a further $65m to come - is only the beginning of the country's telecoms revolution, Mr Stanekzai said.

Kabul used to have a telecoms training institution, which was damaged in the conflict between the Taliban government and the US-Northern Alliance assault.

It is now being reconstructed with the help of the ITU and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

And $500,000 in assistance from the ITU is also helping put vital regulatory structures in place, to make sure the switch from government monopoly to private sector investment goes smoothly.


In the meantime, Mr Stanekzai told BBC News Online that radio communications - with email facilities - should be in place between all 32 provinces within three months, along with satellite access to the international phone network, at least for the main cities in each province.

With funding difficult, other projects remain at the feasibility stage.

But there are plans on the drawing board to lay fibre-optic cable along the roads currently being rebuilt, with microwave links to the more remote places.

HE Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai
"People cannot keep in touch with their families outside Afghanistan"
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