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A glance at the state of telecoms and internet in Afghanistan

in Afghan Business

A glance at the state of telecoms and internet in Afghanistan

By Javid Hamdard

Overview 

Just eleven years ago Afghanistan had a barely functional post-war telecom infrastructure and literally no services. Afghans had to travel to the neighboring countries to make a phone call. Since its re-birth in its modern form in April 2002, when the first private telecom company — Afghan Wireless Communications Company (AWCC) — was authorized to provide mobile (GSM) services, the telecom sector in Afghanistan has witnessed an unprecedented and phenomenal growth.

With progress and development in all four dimensions including Infrastructure, Services, Policy and Regulatory Framework, telecom is one of the biggest revenue generating sectors in Afghanistan with over 160 million US$ in average annual revenues, accounting for more than 12% of total government revenues (Afghan Ministry of Finance). Despite numerous challenges, namely the deteriorating security situation in the country, the telecom sector has been able to attract over 2 billion US-dollars in private investment and has generated more than 110,000 direct and indirect employment opportunities throughout the country.

Telecom services  (mostly mobile) are now available in all 34 provincial capitals and most of the principal cities including Kabul, Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Mazar, with service coverage to more than 88% of the country’s total population and over 72% population penetration. These services are also available along all major highways and main road systems across the country. Rural access to telecom services is set as the top priority for the sector and is quickly expanding.

Telecommunications

Telecommunications spurred by the expansion of mobile (GSM) services. As of March 2013, there are more than 19 million mobile subscribers compared to only 20,000 at the end of 2002. Including the fixed line state carrier Afghan-Telecom, the local fixed-line service provider (LFSP) Wasel-Telecom and four Mobile (GSM/3G) operators AWCC, Roshan, MTN and Etisalat, there are a total of six active telecom carriers providing a wide range of telecom services ranging from fixed line and wireless fixed line (CDMA) voice and data services to mobile GSM/3G voice, SMS and GPRS data services.

The growing competition in the Afghan telecom market for providing better and cheaper services, especially among the 4 private mobile carriers, has resulted in a continuous decline in the prices of telecom services. While a SIM card alone was sold for more than 250 US$ back in 2003, today a SIM card from most of these companies is available for less than a dollar. Furthermore, the local calling cost using a mobile connection has fallen more than 500% from 18 Afs (0.36 US$) per minute to 3 Afs (0.06 USD), while the international calling tariff has also reduced from 100 Afs (2 US$) per minute to an average of 15 Afs (0.30 US$). These prices are even lower using the fixed-line and CDMA services provided by the state owned Afghan-Telecom and Wasel-Telecom.

Building an adequate country-wide telecom infrastructure as the foremost requirement for the growth and expansion of telecom services has been a top priority for the sector since 2002. While telecom infrastructure accounts for the majority of the 2 billion US$ in investment, major infrastructure development projects include the establishment of the mostly mobile (3G/GSM) operators-sponsored country-wide microwave network of more than 5,119 Telecom Base Stations (TBS sites) as the main backbone for mobile (GMS/3G) services and wireless connectivity; and the ongoing implementation of the 130 million USD World-Bank and Afghan Government funded 4810-km national fiber-optic backbone project, which connects more than 23 provincial capitals, several principal cities (including Kabul, Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Mazar), as well as connecting Afghanistan to Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. As of mid-2012 more than 3,000-km of the total 3300-km of the first phase, a national fiber-optic ring along the country’s main road system is being completed, and more than 60% of the ring including connectivity with the neighbouring Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is operational.

Telecom services (Mobile and CDMA) coverage map – March 2013 (Source: ATRA).

Internet

With more than 3 million internet users as of mid-2013 (estimated), there are 51 licensed Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the country (including the four GSM operators and the 2 fixed line carriers Afghan-Telecom and Wasel). While most of these ISPs are national license holders allowed to provide internet services throughout the country, some are local ISPs authorized to provide local/provincial services only.

Some of the major ISPs providing internet services in major cities, such as Kabul, Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Mazar include Neda-Telecom, Insta-Telecom, Rana Technologies, IO Global, Ceretechs, New Dunia, Multinet, Netzone, Asix and Afghan Cyber. Services provided by most of these ISPs include satellite-based VSAT solutions, Microware, Wi-Fi, and dial-up and a couple of them also provide Wi-Max.         

 The state owned Afghan-Telecom with a unique and competitive advantage of having at its disposal most of the state owned telecom infrastructure and services including the more than 3,000km operational fiber optic backbone is quickly emerging as the largest national ISP in the country, providing wholesale and retail internet services to most of the government agencies, banks, academic institutions, some ISPs and end users. Services provided by Afghan-Telecom range from high speed fiber based (STM 1-4 and SDH) connections to Wireless Microwave, Wi-Max, Wi-Fi, PDSN/CDMA Dongles and its most popular low-priced dialup and DSL services provided through its reseller Insta Telecom.      

In the recent years, the internet prices have continuously declined, owed to the dense competition in the data services market and the emergence of Afghan-Telecom as a major ISP, providing cheaper internet services by importing international internet traffic through its national fiber-optic backbone. But, due to the lack of a country-wide open and reliable physical infrastructure and the reliance of the majority of the ISPs on the expensive satellite based communications, prices for high speed and reliable internet connectivity still remains high.

In an attempt to improve the general quality of existing voice and data services as well as to append more value-added services especially mobile-based high speed data communications, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (MoCIT) has decided to issue 3G and Wi-Max licenses to the existing GSM operators and ISPs. As a result of this decision, the MoCIT has so far issued three 3G licenses to Etisalat, MTN and Roshan as well as Wi-Max licenses to 2 local ISPs (Neda and IO-Global).

 Conclusion 

Despite the phenomenal growth and progress of the telecom sector, unfortunately, Afghanistan still remains a mainly consumer country for most of these technologies and services. Fluctuating security situation and ongoing insurgency are the biggest hurdles for the provision of universal access to these services in Afghanistan. Additionally, lack of sustainable electrification, low quality of service, lack of enough local content and applications, lack of sufficient qualified local workforce, and lack of a comprehensive consumer-oriented legal and regulatory framework are challenges that still exist and need to be addressed.

KEY INDICATORS[1]

#

INDICATOR

DETAILS

1

Tele-Density per 100 inhabitants ( Mobile + CDMA + Fixed)

72/100 [2]

2

Service Coverage by Population (Mobile + Fixed + CDMA)

88%

3

Total Number of Mobile Subscribers

19,490,035

4

Total Number of Fixed Line Subscribers

91,575

5

Total Number of CDMA Subscribers

169,691

6

Total Number of Telecom base stations

5,119

7

Total Number of Internet subscribers

3 Million (estimated)

8

Total Number of Second Level (ccSLD) .af Domains

6,525

8

Total number of Licensed ISPs

51 (2 Wi-Max)

10

Total Investment in the Sector

2,016,890,044 (US$)

 


[1] Sources: MoCIT (ATRA, DG-IT, DG-Planning and Policy, Afghan-Telecom), GSM Operators, ISPs and Independent Research by the Author (The indicators shown are as of March 2013).

[2] Due to the unavailability of accurate official census information, the total population figure used by MoCIT is estimated at 27.11 million whereas this figure is believed to be higher at 29.8 million in which case the indicators shown would be lower.

About the Author:

A seasoned professional with over 12 years of extensive professional experience in the fields of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), Policy Development and Project Management, Mr. Javid Hamdard has worked with several national and international organizations at various senior technical and advisory capacities including Office of the President of Afghanistan, the United Nations, Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, Adam Smith Institute, Interews-Europe and more. During his endeavor with these organizations, Mr. Hamdard has advised, planned and implemented numerous cross platform ICT projects. He has also written several ICT policies and guidelines for some of the organizations he has worked with including, the ICT policy of the Office of the President and the Ministry of Finance of Afghanistan. Mr. Hamdard is also the co-founder and member of iHub Afghanistan, co-founder of the National ISP Association of Afghanistan (NISPAA) and a member of Internet Society (ISOC). Mr. Hamdard is currently working as an independent ICT consultant based in Kabul.

 



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  1. Hash
    Hash 2 December, 2013, 09:52

    Thank you for the comprehsive information

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