Afghanistan makes fresh start on telecoms, networking

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN (09/22/2003) - Afghanistan is on the long, slow road to recovery. While there are many problems still ahead as the country still faces a lack of unification along with extreme poverty, steps are being taken by the private sector to build out the infrastructure of the country and enable Afghanistan to enter the digital age.

Let's face facts: Afghanistan will not be handing out broadband modems at any time in the near future and won't have an Internet-savvy population soon either. It's a country still wracked by civil war, illiteracy and poverty, all problems that require long-term solutions. One of these long-term solutions, however, is the regrowth of the country's educational program and, along side this, the development of Afghanistan's new wave of ICT professionals to manage the network and enable its population to communicate with each other.

Currently any Internet or e-mail access can only take place via satellite modems, which are costly, in the region of US$10 per hour, which is expensive in the Gulf of Arabia, but exorbitant in Afghanistan where the average wage is $40 per month. Afghanistan is very mountainous: Kabul, its capital city, is 6,000 feet above sea level, and laying out cables across the country, especially at this stage, would be very difficult indeed.

The population at large is not yet aware of the potential of the Internet, let alone the basics of computing. To address this, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is beginning the large task of establishing the basic framework for use of the Internet in Afghanistan, one small step being the creation of the '.af' domain name for Internet addresses. "Our flag policy in ICT development is how to make the best use of technology for good government," explains Ercan Murat, Country Director for Afghanistan at the UNDP. "We have come a long way but there is still a lot more to do. This program to provide the .af domain for the first time is very symbolic, though very small."

The public sector is more aware of the potential of the Internet and has taken steps to make use of it. As far as the UNDP is concerned, the Internet is an important tool for the Afghan Transitional Authority and the Loya Jurga (the Afghan Parliament) to set up its infrastructure throughout the country. ""This gives an opportunity to the Ministries to manage it and get a financial benefit out of it," claims Murat. "The Internet is very popular and gives opportunities to civil servants to learn the basics of how to use computers and surf the Web."

Who trains the trainers?

The UNDP has taken the step of partnering with the private sector to boost ICT training. Companies such as Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. have already made substantial contributions towards this. Microsoft has donated $65,000 and 150 licences for Windows XP and Office XP software, training manuals and the services of Microsoft trainers. These are intended for 16 centers in which the first wave of Afghans trained in Microsoft products can then pass on their knowledge to others throughout the country.

Cisco's altruism, which has been managed directly from the U.S., has manifested in the form of a Cisco Networking Academy, which is present within the rather dilapidated Faculty of Science at Kabul University. This takes the form of a classroom, kitted out with 17 Dell Pentium 4 PCs (provided by the UNDP), connected to five routers, including two 610s, two 2611s and a 2900 Cisco switch. As the Faculty itself has no direct mains power supply the network is supported by a generator, with load-balancing and UPS systems to protect the equipment.

While the networking and computer equipment in this room are basic, it is one of the most advanced facilities in the University. The Faculty itself was in a state of disrepair: when I visited it most of the walls were stripped to bare brick and the classrooms had few chairs and tables, let alone lighting or power. The academy has WAN and LAN access to the Internet that rivals anything else the University can offer.

The five ladies and 12 men in the Cisco classroom I visited were working towards Cisco's CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) certification. The class is conducted in Farsi, but the learning materials are in English, explains Fazel Hanif, manager of the Cisco Academy in Kabul. English is required to complete the course. "All the coursework is in English but students do also need explanation in Farsi," he says. "When they take the exam, everything is in English because it's an on-line exam."

Both of these donations have already started to make a difference. Some of the students have already found work as a result of these classes. One student, Sonia Ziaee, has landed a job teaching classes at the Ministry of Women's Affairs, which pays $600 per month -- very good money as far as she is concerned.

Other students are looking to take their skills back to their provinces, such as Maidan Wordak, who displays an obvious passion for the technology and its capabilities. "We have 4,000 high schools in the whole of the country and the need to get teachers for computer science in their schools," he says. "It's a really big job and I want to be a Computer Science teacher."

Battle of the sexes

The students are comprised roughly equally of men and women, who are all keen to learn and then pass on their knowledge. According to the Deputy Minister of Women's Affairs, Dr Suraya Rahim, 52 percent of the population are women and there are 60,000 widows in Kabul alone, who were previously not allowed to work under the former regime, who need to find work.

Learning about IT and the Internet is a means to do that. "There is not enough skilled labor and (these women) can benefit from these courses to find jobs," she says. "Computing is very important because, with computers and the Internet, women can know about what's happening in the world. This can also help them to find themselves jobs."

I visited several other classes with computers also donated by the UNDP, that are familiarizing students with their capabilities; learning how to use Microsoft Word and other Windows and Office applications. All the classes follow the Cisco model, software and training manuals in English but with tutelage provided in Farsi. As the standard of English in Kabul is quite good there is the future potential for Afghanistan to export its IT skills in the future -- several of the students are keen to work abroad -- but this is very much in the long term. Most students are generally keen to spread their IT skills across their country.

Freed from cables

Despite the keen approach by many towards learning about computers the initial classrooms in Kabul will not quickly be reproduced in further provinces, such as Kandahar, for some time, especially as the war-torn region is still a dangerous place for everyone. This also adds to the difficulty many see in the reconstruction of Afghanistan's infrastructure, which mainly covers rocky, mountainous terrain that makes it economically unfeasible to roll out fiber optic cable for the network backbone.

This is why Afghanistan's Minister of Communications, Mohamed Massoom Stanekzai, has embarked on using two mobile technologies to provide communications across the country. The GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) standard will be used for two mobile networks, Afghan Wireless and Roshan on the 900MHz spectrum while the U.S. standard, Code Divisional Multiple Access (CDMA), will be used as the backbone of the 'fixed-line' telephony network, using the 800MHz spectrum. According to the minister, another U.N. agency, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), will support the rollout of Afghanistan's telecommunications network, but will require significant investment. "By 2007 Afghanistan should be fairly up to date with a basic infrastructure and telephony network," says Stanekzai. "And this is what I believe will need the latest technology."

The idea behind the deployment of the CDMA technology is that it will lower initial network rollout costs. "The decision was carried out by a team of experts through the ITU," explains Mohammed Gul Kholmi, President of Telecommunications and the future CEO of Afghanistan's fixed-line network. "As we don't have any connectivity outside Kabul or amongst the provinces. We didn't have this so we chose wireless, with CDMA as a fixed network."

Should the network rollout prove successful, public handsets connected to the CDMA cellular network will be placed in villages and towns across the provinces, providing voice communications. The next step, according to Kholmi, would be the introduction of data access services to these areas once computing becomes more established. It is an ambitious plan and by no means certain that it will happen. But the drive to create commU.N.ications across the land, with mobile GSM networks already materializing, like Afghanistan Wireless and Roshan, in Kabul suggests that, by now, Afghanistan is probably due a little luck.

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