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Iraqi Official Sees Bright Future for Telecom Services

Iraq's Communications Minister says he's optimistic about efforts to rebuild and expand telecommunications in his country and attract private sector investment. The official has been taking part in an international conference in Geneva.

Mohammed al-Hakim says over the past seven months his ministry has restored telephone service to 1.2 million subscribers and has opened up mobile phone services for nearly one million. But he calls this only the beginning.

He notes the several wars Iraq fought over the past 20 years destroyed and damaged much of the country's telecommunications infrastructure. What remained intact, he says, deteriorated because of lack of parts and servicing. He says the country's telecommunications' system now is at the stage it was in before the American-led coalition invaded the country, but he predicts the telecom sector will some day be his country's second biggest revenue earner, after oil.

Of the many projects underway, Mr. al-Hakim highlights efforts to expand Internet access.

"I think the most powerful initiative that my ministry has done is to open up the Internet access for the price of a telephone call. That to me is very crucial. The reason behind that is that, first of all, we have very young people," he said. "We have very low penetration of PC's [personal computers]. We try to increase the level of access to the internet by university students, high school students, as well as the population. So, what we end up doing in Iraq, we started an initiative to open up a free internet for the price of a local telephone call."

He calculates the cost at 33 cents an hour.

The communications minister also says his department has begun efforts to link all government entities wirelessly and provide secure e-mail access and data transfer.

Mr. al-Hakim says insurgents pose a major threat, noting that landlines are particularly vulnerable to attack. But, he adds, whatever is damaged can and will be repaired within 48 hours.

"So, we are really going head on head They cut them, we repair them. They cut them, we repair them. One of us is going to give up. O.K. either they give up or we give up. We are not giving up. The second thing is we are using the new technologies which is the wireless technologies," he said.

Mr. al-Hakim, who asserts government is not good at running businesses and wants it to get out of the telecommunications sector, says he has opened up wireless communications to private investors. He says this will introduce competition into the marketplace which, in turn, will bring new technologies into the country, result in lower prices for consumers and generate a lot of revenue.