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Last Updated: Friday, 25 July, 2003, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK
Phone services spring up in Iraq
Phone lines being fixed at public communication centre hit in Baghdad
Phone lines were battered during the recent war
Mobile phone networks are springing up in Iraq even before the occupation authorities get round to handing out official licences.

People in Baghdad with GSM mobile phones were surprised, earlier this week, to see welcome messages from Bahraini operator Batelco, 20% owned by the UK's Cable & Wireless, on their phones' screens.

Batelco has spent about $5m in the past month bringing in base stations and other equipment, which are tied into the outside world via satellite terminals.

Although its services are currently on offer only to outsiders with GSM phones which can "roam" onto its network, it hopes to start offering services to Iraqis, probably on a pay-upfront basis, within a week.

Another company, US-based VoEx, has set up three centres in Baghdad offering payphone and fax services also connected via satellite, and hopes to add up to 20 more in coming weeks.

The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) said a week ago that it has asked companies to express interest in licences by 28 July, and hopes to get the bidding process underway within weeks.


Iraq's communications systems have been devastated, first by 12 years of sanctions and regular bombings by US and UK aircraft, and then by the US-led assault in March and April this year.

At present, only two official mobile networks exist.

One, in Baghdad, is run under the name MCI by bankrupt US telecoms firm WorldCom for US personnel.

The other covers the south and is run by MTC-Vodafone, a consortium operated out of Kuwait which welcomed users with text messages wishing them "a pleasant stay in Kuwait".

Both are based on the GSM mobile standard, used by 60 million people in 20 neighbouring Arab countries and also by about 70% of mobile users worldwide.

That allows visitors to "roam" onto the networks without necessarily having to have a subscription to them, a factor many experts believe should be decisive in choosing which standard the new official networks should support.

Even so, Darrell Issa - a US congressman from California - has in the past called for the CPA to mandate the use of the CDMAOne standard developed by Qualcomm, a California company from which he has received campaign contributions.

Rapid setup

The roaming factor is what has allowed Batelco to set up, even without official sanction.

Its officials told the Associated Press that despite the lack of a licence, they believed the CPA did not have a problem with its activities, since troops were happily allowing its equipment into the country.

In any case, there are plenty of telecoms engineers around the world with experience of building ad hoc mobile networks, particularly after natural disasters or attacks.

For example, the attack on New York on 11 September 2001 knocked out much of the city's mobile network, since many aerials were on the World Trade Centre itself.

New York's phone companies immediately went into action to replace them with portable base stations, to try to ensure that emergency services - and locals desperate to contact scared relatives and friends - had access to a phone system.

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