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Mobile Telephones Help with Afghan Restoration - 2002-05-20

In Afghanistan, attention continues to be focused on the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees and elections that are to lead to the formation next month of a transitional government. But other forces are also at work that are knitting the society back together. Some of these forces are traditional, but others are not, as we hear from correspondent Scott Bobb in Kabul.

Scores of people are crowded around a dimly lit counter in the public hall of Kabul's telecommunications ministry. Each man is holding several $100 bills in his hand and watches intently as workers remove cellophane wrapping from stacks of small, bright-blue boxes.

Mobile telephones have arrived in Afghanistan. A worker shows each customer how to use the device that is being seen for the first time in this country.

This giant leap into the 21st century is being engineered by Gavin Jeffery, the director of the Afghan Wireless Communications Company, which is a joint venture of the Afghan Government and private investors. From a small office in the communications building, Mr. Jeffery, says it took a lot of cooperation to launch Kabul's mobile phone network in less than two months. "The biggest problem is logistics - actually getting the equipment into country and spread around the country," he explains, "because the other means of communication, road and things, are not really usable."

Mr. Jeffery said an agreement was reached several years ago to provide wireless communication service in Afghanistan, but this was interrupted during the Taliban Government. After the Taliban fell, he said, the project was reactivated by the new, interim government.

With a staff of 200 Afghans and 40 expatriates, the company has built four antenna stations in Kabul and is planning to build eight more. This allows subscribers to send and receive calls using their battery-powered, handheld phones from anywhere in the capital. Customers in Kabul can call anywhere in the world and can receive international calls from a growing list of places that includes Europe, North America, and neighboring Pakistan and Iran.

The company is also launching mobile telephone service in the provincial capital, Herat, in the west; Mazar-e-Sharif in the north; Kandahar in the south; and Jalalabad, in the east. It plans to provide service eventually in all 32 provincial capitals. Mr. Jeffery says this will help Afghanistan rebuild its economy. "One of the essential elements of being able to [rebuild the economy] is to have reliable communications, roads, telecommunications and international connections in terms of flights, etc," he said. "So, I feel that what we are doing is being part of the process of enabling the economy to regenerate itself."

One of the largest groups to have adopted mobile phones is traders working in Kabul's currency exchange market, who hawk rubber-banned bricks of Afghani banknotes from a bustling square near the city's main market. With their mobile phones, traders now obtain the latest exchange rates from anywhere in the world.

Mr. Jeffery hopes as the wireless network becomes operational, his company will also install an internet service in as little as two months. He says for a country that has been cut off from the rest of the world, the Internet will be revolutionary. He says the banking system, which still does not work in Afghanistan, will be one of the first beneficiaries.

The head of the International Affairs Department at Kabul University, Faizullah Jalal, says the new technology is important because it will put people in touch with each other and foster greater understanding. "The walls which are now separating one national group, ethnic group, from another, these walls will collapse when there are these telephone links between people," he says.

Mr. Jeffery looks back on the hectic months and says he is proud of what has been achieved in such a short time. "It isn't just about running a business," he said. "You are contributing something to society. And the feeling I get is that that is appreciated and welcomed."

The service is expensive for most Afghans - 10 U.S. cents a minute for local use and $0.50-1.00 per minute for international calls. Nevertheless, the service has been embraced by Afghans with even modest resources, because it allows them to breach some of the barriers that have kept them isolated for so long.