New fiber-optic network brings digital era to Afghanistan
The first overland link to the Internet will drive down prices and bring more opportunities for Afghans, say officials. But security has prevented parts of the network from being finished.
New underground wires in Afghanistan carry bits and bytes, not bomb blasts. The fiber-optic cables run to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, linking Afghanistan by land to the global Internet for the first time.Skip to next paragraph
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Until last month, most Afghans could only surf the Web through satellite links to other nations. That's expensive, stunting Internet penetration to just 3 percent of the Afghan population.
Afghan officials say the country's expanding fiber-optic network will drive down prices for Internet services dramatically, extending access to ordinary Afghans and potentially expanding business and educational opportunities in a country where both are in short supply.
Other communication sectors have proven big successes in Afghanistan's fledgling economy, including mobile phones and broadcast media. But the Internet has lagged, partly due to government dithering over international contracts and security challenges, say critics.
"The project of fiber was supposed to last 18 months, and it is [now] seven years. And the fiber they are putting down will not be sufficient for users of Afghanistan," says Mohammad Rahim Yousufi, managing director of a Kabul-based Internet service provider (ISP) called Afghan ICT Solution.
The project, funded through the World Bank, loops the country's major cities along a giant ring with spurs heading off to neighboring nations. But vital chunks lie incomplete because of the fighting across the region. The new Tajik line completed last month delivered the critical first outside connection. The second connection, to Uzbekistan, was completed earlier this month.
Internet access can bring 'political awareness'
It's still not uncommon for countries to be as digitally isolated as Afghanistan – dozens of countries have no known cable connections to the Internet. A list provided by the Packet Clearing House (PCH) in San Francisco includes many poor, landlocked countries and isolated island nations.
On the Indian subcontinent alone, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan all got their first outside cable links within the past three years, says Gaurab Upadhaya, a PCH analyst. Prices fell in Nepal "big time" with the move. That touched off much wider usage of technologies like YouTube, blogging, and online phone services.
"The faster access and cheaper Internet has done more in terms of political awareness and spreading news outside the country very fast," says Mr. Upadhaya. He sees less of a business effect, though it is now easier for Nepalese to work abroad, thanks to quicker wire transfers and cheap international phone rates online.