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.

By , Correspondent

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    Afghan boys attend a computer training class in Zabul Province. The arrival of a fiber-optic network promises a faster Web connection than satellites offer and could entice business development in Afghanistan. Some say its too little, too late.
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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.

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.

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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.

Afghanistan's minister of communications has high hopes for the country's new fiber-optic backbone. "We are going to bring the cost down to one fifth of what the cost is by satellite," says Amirzai Sangin. He talks excitedly about interest not just from ISPs, but from banks and television stations. "It's like a national information highway, and all who want to submit [proposals] should be able to use it."

The arrival of a fiber-optic network could entice companies to consider opening call centers in Afghanistan, says Muhammad Aslam, a consultant who has worked on Afghanistan's Internet infrastructure.

Will the new network be enough?

But getting a fiber link won't mean Afghanistan will experience its own dot-com bubble. It may not even rapidly expand Internet users. Some of the most pessimistic voices on this front are the ISPs themselves.

There are some doubts that the network will provide enough bandwidth. Mr. Yousafzai worries that traffic traversing Afghanistan from other countries will use up the available capacity. Mr. Aslam says the ministry should have been more ambitious: "For a 2 percent increase in the cost of the current contract value, we could have had world-class fiber of great capacity."

There's also disillusionment over the price the ministry is offering ISPs for access. One local ISP, Rana Technologies, determined it wasn't worth it. "The cost is more expensive for the fiber than the satellite," says Farhad Ghafoor, Rana's vice president of business development.

Then, too, there's the bigger picture: Internet won't have mass appeal in Afghanistan until there's enough electricity, home PC ownership, and literacy to make use of it. "It's going to grow, but only on the private sector side, not the consumer side," says Mr. Ghafoor. "It will be gradual – not like the US when AOL went up."

Security complicates network completion

The Ministry of Communications had fairly ambitious hopes five years ago – setting a target of 10 percent Internet penetration by now. But it turned out mobile phones became the runaway success story.

Mr. Sangin predicts Web-enabled phone demand, plus lower prices, will get Afghan Internet usage back on track.

The delay, he says, came when the lowest bid for the project was also the least technically proficient. The government eventually chose another company – a Chinese firm – after persuading it to match the lowest bid. But by the time shovels hit dirt, many areas had become too dangerous, leaving sections of the network undone. In Pakistan, just six miles remain to link to the Afghan border, but there, too, security has worsened.

"If we [had] moved faster at the time, the security situation would have been better," says Sangin.

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