Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Spreading the Internet

New government programme plans to bring internet services to the masses.
By Amanullah Nasrat

In a country where communications are often either poor or nonexistent, the Afghan government has launched a major effort to make internet access more widely available by introducing a digital wireless network.

Currently operating only in the capital, the network will soon be available in 12 provinces and should be operational throughout the country by the end of the year, according to Communications Minister Amirzai Sangeen.

So far, the government has spent 70 million US dollars on creating, and expects to spend another 50 million to complete the project this year. Sangeen said that 9,000 digital phones are ready to be connected to the network.

Linking Afghanistan up via wireless internet connections is seen as vital to both economic and political development, as the government in Kabul continues to struggle to exert control over some provinces.

"Trade centres, government offices, schools and other institutions will benefit from the internet network," said Sangeen.

Deputy Communications Minister Baryalai Hasaam said the government had contracted two Chinese telecommunications companies – ZPE and Huaway – to build the network.

In addition to providing improved communications for the government and private business, officials hope ordinary people, who until now have been unable to afford internet access, will benefit as well.

Currently, access to the web is available through the internet cafes that dot Kabul. But prices, as much as one dollar an hour, mean using the internet is too expensive for most people in a country where civil servants and teachers often earn as little as 60 dollars a month.

Although specific rates have yet to be set, the government plans to charge 30 per cent less than these private firms, and night-time rates could be as low as 20 cents per hour, said Sangeen.

In addition to having their own computer, said Hasaam, customers will need to buy a wireless digital phone, costing between 140 and 160 dollars, and have it installed. They will also have to buy a pre-paid card that will provide them with a certain number of minutes. In addition, the government will impose a four-dollar-a month tax on such connections.

Hasaam said the government plans to provide the first two months of service to new customers free of charge.

Not everyone is happy with the new network.

Hasaamuddin, who runs the Sabah Internet café in Kabul, said the lower costs offered by the government network will hurt his business. "This new system of the ministry of communications will damage our business by 50 per cent. People will get web access at a low price, and no one will walk through my internet café door any more," he said.

But the Afghan Wireless Communications Company, one of the largest of the 12 private companies currently providing wireless communications in the country, said it welcomed the government’s new project.

Mohammad Naeem Haqmal, a spokesman for the company, said, "We are in favour of peaceful competition. Whether it is the ministry of communications or other companies that are providing facilities to ordinary people… it is still a kind of service."

Amanullah Nasrat is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.

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