Telecommunications in Afghanistan


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Afghan War News > General Info > Development > Telecommunications


Afghanistan's use of cell phones has exploded in the past few years.  Over 60% of the population now has cell phones.  The use of cell phones have become a part of daily life in Afghanistan.  The growth of cell phone use has been pointed to as one of the greatest advancements in Afghan society since 2001.  There are many uses of cell phones beyond simple communication.  Some use it to recieve and send financial information, do online banking, and keep up with the news.  Others use it to listen to the radio; making cell phones a propaganda tool for either the coalition or the Taliban.

Boom to the Economy. The Afghan telecommunications industry was a strong economic boost to the Afghan economy. The cellphone industry pumped $148 million into the Afghan economy in 2015. The telecommunications industry provided over 140,000 jobs making it one of the country's largest employers. The telecommunications sector also provides vast sums to the Afghan government in the form of taxes; however, the government taxes are also undercutting the viability of the industry.

Mobile Money System by Cell Phone.  The rapid spread of cell phones and cell phone towers coupled with technology has brought about advances in the banking and financial system in Afghanistan. There are cell phone applications that allow mobile subscribers to purchase airtime, make money transfers, and conduct electronic bill payments. One payment-by-phone plan is run by Roshan and is called "M-Paisa". 13.  In addition, government employees are paid via cell phone accounts.  12.

Computerized Pay System for Security Forces.  Afghan security force members can now receive verification of payment via cell phone.  When an Afghan soldier is paid he can get confirmation via text or e-mail that a deposit was made to his account.  This is especially useful if he is in a remote location without an ATM to use his debit card to withdraw cash.  Local moneylenders will provide credit based on receipt of e-mails indicating deposits.  The pre-approved moneylenders will transfer the funds from a centrally managed account for a small fee.  The system can get the money to the Afghan soldier or policeman and is one mechanism for defeating corruption.


Telecommunication Companies in Afghanistan

Etisalat Afghanistan.  This firm is a subsidiary of a telecom  based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Roshan. This company started business in Afghanistan in January 2003.  The company is owned by several entities; the largest of which is the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development.  www.roshan.af

Afghan Wireless or AWCC.  This firm was launched in November 2002 and is a joint venture between Telephone Systems International (U.S. firm) and the Afghan Ministry of Communications.  www.afghan-wireless.com

MTN Group.  A South Africa-based multinational mobile telecommunications company.


The Taliban and Telecommunications

Taliban Interdiction of Telecommunications.  For the past several years the Taliban and other insurgent and criminal gangs have been interdicting the cell phone service in Afghanistan.  For the last few years the cell phone service has been consistently interrupted at night.  Those phone companies that don't obey the Taliban demands to power off the cell towers at night find the towers destroyed, telephone company workers killed, and subject to other means of coercion. It costs the phone companies about $100,000 to $250,000 to repair a cell tower.  7.  If a cell tower can't be destroyed then the Taliban will coerce or bribe the guards or cell tower workers to destroy, damage or turn off the cell tower.  The interdiction of the cell towers is done for a number of reasons. 

Diminish Anti-Insurgent Tips.  The Taliban conduct many of their activities and movements at night and they don't want local villages calling in their locations to the authorities or Afghan military.  If a villager sees a small group of men digging by the side of the road to plant an IED - he might report it via his cell phone.  However, if the cellular service is down then the IED will likely not get reported in a timely manner.

Inhibit ANSF Coordination. Many of the Afghan security forces rely on cell phones to communicate their operations and activities and cell towers not operating at night prevent the Afghan security forces from coordinating their activities. 

Taliban Operational Security.  The Taliban don't trust their lower echelon rank and file not to use their cell phones - which makes them susceptable to intercept and targeting by the coalition forces.  2.

Propaganda War.  Also of importance is that shutting down the towers proves to the Afghan people that the Afghan government cannot provide services and cannot protect them from the Taliban.  The interdiction of cellular service demonstrates the weakness of the Afghan central government. This reminder of the weakness of the Afghan government takes place every single evening when the citizens of Afghanistan lose their cell phone service.  The provinces affected the most by Taliban interdiction of cell coverage are Helmand, Zabul, and Paktika. 8.

Damage the Economy. The Taliban does not want to see a robust economy in Afghanistan.  A good economy does not aid the Taliban's cause.  Cell phones provide the ability to aid economic activity - so the cell coverage systems are targeted by the Taliban.

Taliban Use of Telecommunications.  The Taliban have come a long way from a crowd that hated technology and the Internet only ten years ago.  They have mastered the Internet, can produce a propaganda message faster than the United States (an ambush that they film can be posted on the Internet within minutes), out-perform our Informations Operations personnel almost all the time, and utilize the numerous cell phones and cell phone towers to their advantage.  Cell phones are now used to transmit pro-Taliban messages. Their websites are professionally done and can be uploaded via mobile phones.  1.  They have Twitter accounts and use them to transmit messages to cell phones in their Information Operations campaign.  6.

Ministry of Communication & Information Technology (MCIT).  The Ministry of Communication and Information Technology has oversight on the communications industry of Afghanistan.  It website is www.mcit.gov.af/en.

ISAF Telecom Advisory Team (TAT).  The International Security Assistance Force had a Telecom Advisory Team that worked in partnership with the Government of Afghanistan and the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT).  The purpose of TAT was to help with the introduction of technology to assist in the stabilization of the country as well as to help it thrive economically.  The TAT was a small team of about ten personnel from the military and civilian sectors.  The goal of TAT "  . . . is to synchonize and harmonize the programs sponsored by the embassy, various elements of the economic sector and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to deconflict or leverage similar programs".  10.

U.S. Funded Parallel Phone Systems.  The United States has sunk millions of dollars to develop a parallel phone system that the Taliban cannot interdict.  It is reported that in 2010 over $260 million was spent by the military and the state department on the telecommunications system in Afghanistan.  Many of the cell phone towers were located on secure coalition bases, Afghan security compounds, or in provincial or district centers.  3.  Each of the cell tower projects had a different purpose.  Some were to be used strictly by the Afghan security forces and would be located on Afghan compounds.  Others would be available to the public at large.  10.

Expeditionary Cellular Communications Service (ECCS).  9.  The ECCS program was designed to only operate when the commercial phone towers were inoperable. This project involved 20 towers that cost $68 million placed along the " . . . Helmand river valley and along the southern portion of Highway One.  The hope was that villagers would then roam on to the US-provided network after the main carriers turned off their masts at night".  4.

One reason for paying for the increased capacity of cell phone coverage security benefits associated with that coverage.  The security situation is certainly enhanced if cell phone coverage is available - tip lines can be called, security operations can be coordinated, IEDs reported, and calls for assistance from Afghan security forces that need medevacs, route clearance teams, a quick reaction force (QRF), or to provide a situation update (SITREP).

Another reason for increased cell phone coverage is the economic benefit.  Cell coverage and use of cell phones can provide feul to economic development by helping Afghans conduct business, receive wages electronically, and use services such as banking.

Comprehensive Telecommunications Effort. The U.S. and its coalition partners - working with the Afghanistan government - is providing assistance on a number of telecommunications fronts to include ground-based fiber wire routes along the ring road, microwave transmission towers 11, telecom switches, and Internet access.


Websites about Telecommunications

"Communications in Afghanistan" by Afghanistan Culture
www.afghanistan-culture.com/communications.html


Publications and Reports about Telecoms and Internet in Afghanistan

Logged On: Smart Government Solutions from South Asia, The World Bank, December 2014. The paper looks at mobile and smart phone technology through the lens of good government management. Accessed here.

Mobile Payments, Conflict and Corruption in Afghanistan, Blumentstock, Callen and Ghani, Berkeley University, April 27, 2012.  Accessed here.

Afghanistan - Telecoms, Mobile, Internet & Forecasts, Paul Budde Communication Pty Ltd, March 2010. Accessed here on Research and Markets Feb 2012.

Sheldon Himelfarb, Can You Help Me Now? Mobile Phones and Peacebuilding in Afghanistan, United States Institute of Peace, Special Report 259, November 2010. Accessed here Feb 2012.


News Articles About Telecommunications in Afghanistan

January 18, 2016. "Afghan Taliban flex muscles with new telecom tax". Yahoo! News.

March 12, 2015. "Keeping Pace With Technology: Youths Seek to Turn Dreams into Reality". World Bank. The WB and the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) are working together to train up IT professionals and incubate small technology businesses in Afghanistan.

February 7, 2015. "Militants Increase Cell Tower Shut Downs, Extortion of Telecom Companies". Tolo News.

November 13, 2014. "Where There's a Will, There's a Way to Go Online: Afghanistan's youth and new media", Afghanistan Analysts Network.

August 2014. "Don't Bank On It", Foreign Affairs, an article by Marisa L. Porges examines the downside of mobile banking.

February 18, 2014. "Roshan: The Greatest Untold Story of Societal Transformation in Afghanistan". Forbes.com.

October 3, 2013. "Court orders deactivation of Afghan roaming". TeleGeography.com.

May 23, 2013. "Women's access to mobile phones increasing in Afghanistan". Asia Pacific Gov. 48 % reported to own their cell phones.

March 8, 2013. "Kyrgyz Nomads, Afghanistan". National Geographic. Some cell phones are not used for communications - in areas without reception they are cameras and game toys.

March 2, 2013. "How Afghanistan is on the Leading Edge of a Tech Revolution". Time.

July 27, 2012.  "Afghanistan's superhero: mobile phones fight crime, liberate women and enrich the poor".  Global Envision.

March 30, 2012.  "Afghan Wireless on Target to Hire 5,000 Local Afghan Employees". The Sacramento Bee.

March 19, 2012.  "Etisalat launches 3G network in Afghanistan".  TeleGeography.

March 19, 2012.  "Cashing Out of Corruption".  Technology Review.

January 12, 2012. "Silicon Afghanistan: Kabul Innovation Lab Launches". Forbes.

December 1, 2011.  "Telepin powers Afghan mobile money system".  Ottawa Business Journal.

December 1, 2011.  "From medieval Taliban to a tech-savvy militia".  The Express Tribune.

November 29, 2011.  "Pocket Spies: Smartphone actionable intelligence".  ComputerWorld.

November 17, 2011.  "Pocket Spies".  Michael Yon Dispatches.

November 11, 2011. "Taliban target mobile phone masts to prevent tipoffs from Afghan civilians". The Guardian. The Afghan mobile phone industry reports crippling damage.

October 12, 2011.  "Army Wants Smartphones, But Can It Make Them Secure?"  National Defense Magazine.

October 5, 2011.  "The Taliban's Media Fight for Afghan Supremacy", The Atlantic Wire.

September 14, 2011.  "NATO Responds to Kabul Attacks with a Twitter Flame War".  The Atlantic Wire.

July 5, 2011.  "Old Internet Getting You Down? Build Your Own!".  Broadband Expert.

July 5, 2011.  "USAID cellphone program aims to enhance Afghan media".  NextGov.

February 25, 2011.  "Can mobile banking take off in Afghanistan?"  The Christian Science Monitor.

November 22, 2010.  "How Mobile Phones Jump-Start Developing Economies".  Technology Review.

November 5, 2010.  "Mobile Cell Towers Advance on All Fronts".  Strategy Page.

March 24, 2010.  "Afghan Cell Carriers Follow Taliban Rules".  CBS News.

March 23, 2010.  "Fighting the Taliban with Cellphones".  The New York Times.

September 15, 2009.  "Paktya Border Town Inaugurates Mobile Phone Service.  USAID.

April 23, 2008. "Taliban's new strategy is pushing the wrong buttons".  Los Angeles Times.

March 26, 2008.  "Taliban Destroys Cell Towers, Angers Afghans".  Geek.com.

March 2, 2008.  "Afghanistan: Mobile-Phone Towers Are Taliban's New Target".  Radio Free Europe.

February 25, 2008.  "Taliban Threatens Cell Towers".  Wired.com Danger Room.

November 24, 2006.  "Cell Phone Towers Escape Afghan Violence".  NPR.

August 5, 2003.  "Afghan Wireless Network Achieves Low Drop Call Rate Across National Network".  Aghan Wireless.


Videos about Cell Phones and Telecommunications in Afghanistan

Afghan Government Installs Cell Phone Towers, Armed Forces Network (AFN) YouTube Channel, October 26, 2010. Accessed here February 2012.

Cell Phone Towers to be Installed in Now Zad, Sangin and Musa Qel'eh, Armed Forces Network (AFN) YouTube Channel, December 14, 2010.  Accessed here February 2012.

 

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Endnotes

1.  The Taliban have integrated the use of cell phones with their overall Information Operations plan.  See From medieval Taliban to a tech-savvy militia, The Express Tribune, December 1, 2011.  Accessed here February 2012.

2.  The Taliban are very wary about cell phone use - especially since the killing of Bin Laden.  See Bin Laden kill spooks Taliban off cell phones, CBS News, November 14, 2011.  Accessed here Feb 2012.

3.  As of late 2011 these systems were either in the early developmental or planning stage.  A number of these cell towers were set up but not yet fully operational.

4.  See Taliban target mobile phone masts to prevent tipoffs from Afghan civilians, The Guardian, November 11, 2011.  Accessed here February 2012.

5.  For a description of the computerized pay system for Afghan security force personnel see Afghanistan transition is on track, senior general says, Government Executive, November 3, 2011.  Accessed here February 2012.

6.  See Twitter war with the Taliban, CNN Security Clearance Blog, October 26, 2011.  Accessed here February 2012.  See also South Carolina native awarded Bronze star for work in Afghanistan, The Augusta Chronicle, October 9, 2011.  Accessed here February 2012.  Visit ISAF's Twitter account here.

7.  For the cost to repair a destroyed or damage cell phone tower see Taliban Using Modern Means to Add to Sway, The New York Times, October 4, 2011.  Accessed here on February 11, 2012.

8.  View a map of provinces affected by Taliban interdiction of cell phones (info as of October 2011) provided by The New York Times.  Accessed here Feb 2012.

9.  See Army Awards ManTech $68 Million Afghan Cellular Contract, InformationWeek Government, November 3, 2010.  Accessed here February 2012.  See also ManTech Awarded $68 Million Contract from the U.S. Army to Provide Cellular Communications Service in Afghanistan, Mantech Press Release, November 1, 2010 accessed here Feb 2012.

10.  For more information on the ISAF Telecom Advisory Team (TAT) and the various U.S. funded cell tower projects see Connectivity Builds Independence in Afghanistan, SIGNAL Online, April 2011.  Accessed here February 2012.

11.  For an example of a microwave communications project see Building Telecommunications Capacity in Afghanistan, DipNote U.S. Department of State, March 16, 2011.  Accessed here February 2012.

12.  See Roshan's website for more information on how to use its mobile money transfer product. This service offers person to person money transfer, disburesement and repayment of microfinance loans, airtime purchases, merchant payments, and disbursement and receipt of salaries.  www.roshan.af/Roshan/M-Paisa.aspx

13.  M-Paisa or "paisa" means money in the Dari language.  See Cashing Out of Corruption, Technology Review, March 19, 2012.  Accessed here March 19, 2012.

14. For more on the slowing down of the economic boom for the telecommunications industry in Afghanistan read "Once a Bright Spot, Afghan Telecoms Face Unsustainable Losses", The New York Times, April 8, 2016.

 


 

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