Reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan have had a fair share of well-publicized difficulties. But amid the dark patches, there is a bright spot: Afghans are getting connected again.
A decade ago, most Afghans had to leave their country just to make a phone call. By the time Taliban militants were driven from Kabul in late 2001, the country’s telephone system had been ravaged by warfare and mobile phones were unheard of. Those lucky enough to have satellite phones had to charge their units with car batteries and diesel generators.
No longer. Today, 17 million Afghans, over half the country’s population, have access to mobile phones, and telecoms account for 12 percent of Afghan government revenues. The price of a mobile call has fallen 500 percent since 2003, and 85 percent of the population lives within network range, according to a report released last month by the Washington-based nonprofit media organization Internews. A million Afghans are online, according to the minister of communications, up from 200,000 in 2006; a quarter of those use the social networking website Facebook.
Information and communications technology (ICT) has exploded to such a degree that some are envisaging a new “Digital Silk Road” with Afghanistan acting as a hub. “Considering the remarkable growth of the sector in the past 10 years, as well as factors like the young population and the location of the country, Afghanistan is very viable for a fully fledged ICT industry,” Javid Hamdard, the author of the report, told EurasiaNet.org from Kabul via Skype.
The rapid changes are demand-driven, Hamdard says. According to the report, the ICT sector has attracted over $1.8 billion in investment since 2002, most of it coming in the past six years. Much of that money is private, though the Afghan government and donors such as the World Bank have also contributed.
One flagship project envisions almost 5,000 kilometers of fiber-optic cable laid beside Afghanistan’s highway network. Since 2010, almost 3,000 kilometers have been installed along the “ring road” connecting major cities. That has brought affordable Internet access to homes for the first time. Internet service providers (ISPs) in six cities (Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Jalalabad, Mazar-i Sharif and Kunduz) offer DSL packages starting at approximately $30 a month. Mobile GPRS and 3G Internet connections are also available from private mobile service providers.
Connections are fast enough for web browsing, but not for large data transfers or voice messaging (as EurasiaNet.org discovered when attempting to speak to Hamdard over his DSL connection; the repeated dropouts forced the interview to continue over Skype chat).
Still, the idea of Internet access at home was unthinkable two years ago, when expensive satellite connections, starting at about $3,000 per month, were the only option.
The rapidly growing demand is driving constant reinvestment and improved services, says Hamdard. The fiber-optic network cost approximately $130 million, but returned $20-$25 million in revenues in the first year alone. Forty-four licensed Internet service providers (ISPs) and four mobile carriers have created 110,000 jobs.
Behind the success is a flexible regulatory framework, established with foreign donor help. The regulations, though they need constant updating to keep pace with the changing environment, have become a model for development in the country. “The exploding growth of the telecom sector over the past decade not only surpassed the expectations of the public sector and industry, but serves as a practical model for the larger development of infrastructure and services in Afghanistan,” the Internews report states.
Of course, challenges remain. Security problems have delayed the installation of the remaining 2,000 kilometers of fiber-optic cable connecting remote regions off the “ring road.” And “some government officials and policy makers see ICTs as just computer games,” Hamdard said.
For the most part, however, officialdom, the private sector, and the droves of young Afghans getting online are eager to help the sector thrive. “Unlike in other places, our problem is more technical and capacity related than political,” he said.
Looking to India as a model, Hamdard believes the rapid development in the IT-Telecoms could herald a prosperous future. Developing the skills of 10,000 or 20,000 young Afghans could make a difference in building an IT hub in the heart of Asia, generating billions of dollars in revenue. “We could literally have a self-dependent economy, rather than a donor-funded economy. That, I believe, will solve many of our problems,” he said.