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Af-Pak 2014: "What is a phone?"

Haqmal Masoodzai and Farid Shinwari
For many Afghans, calling family at home or abroad can take days, cost hundreds of dollars and involve crossing an international border. Both governments and mobile phone operators either side of the Durand Line…
10.11.2014  |  Paktia/Peshawar
Some older residents in Afghan border provinces like Kunar, Paktia and Khost have never seen, let alone used a telephone. (Photo: Imran Waak. Main photo: Qarib Shahab)
Some older residents in Afghan border provinces like Kunar, Paktia and Khost have never seen, let alone used a telephone. (Photo: Imran Waak. Main photo: Qarib Shahab)

“What is a telephone? What is it used for?” says Sayed Mohammad, a 70-year old in the Worrmamai district in Paktia. It is not an uncommon phrase to hear in Afghan border provinces where network coverage is largely absent and many residents have never seen or heard a telephone, let alone held a mobile handset.

For Afghans living near the border with Pakistan, in provinces like Khost, Nuristan, Paktia and Kunar, staying in touch with family members at home or in the Diaspora can mean having to cross a deadly international border to make a phone call. Besides the cost of the line rental, callers have to fit the bill for transport, accommodation and 'border fees' to arrive in the neighbouring Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, meaning a quick chat with a sibling in the USA or Kabul can cost hundreds of dollars.

Snailmail to distant line

“We are out of touch with the rest of the word,” says Abdullah, a resident of border district Dand-e-Pathan in Paktia province. Abdullah says he must either travel miles along a volatile road to the centre of his district, or, more easily, cross the border to the district of Parachinar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where there is network coverage to make a call. The difficulty in accessing a phone line means families often endure long periods of silence, says Abdullah. “We contact our relatives in other countries only once in several months,” he told Afghanistan Today.

Mobile phone towers such as this one are generously distributed across Afghanistan, but largely absent in border areas. (Photo: Qarib Shahab)

Before the development of modern telecoms services, globally-splintered Afghan families shared news with each other via handwritten letters or audio recordings that often took months to reach their intended targets. Today, 90 per cent of Afghans have access to mobile phone grids, although residents in border areas, where network coverage is largely absent, are still out of the range of providers.

If calling relatives abroad is hard, calling home can be even more challenging for Afghans who migrate abroad for work. A 35-year-old who recently returned to Paktia after two years working in Saudi Arabia says reaching his family was practically impossible while he was in the Middle Eastern monarchy.

No line's land

“When I felt homesick and wanted to speak to my family, the family’s phone was off,” says Janet Gull, a resident of Gorbuz district in Khost, which neighbours the Pakistani province of Waziristan. The dead line caused Gull substantial distress. The Gorbuz to Ghulam Khan checkpoint to cross the border is currently closed because of the Pakistani military's offensive in Waziristan, meaning many residents of the frontier district must cross the border illlegally to access modern communications.

The Afghan government says 90 per cent of Afghans have access to mobile phone networks but acknowledges that telecommunications infrastructure is weakest along the border, where some elderly residents have still never made a call. Internet connectivity is an even rarer luxury.

“I travel to the capital of Paktia, Gardez City, to send emails,” says Ajmir Zazai, who graduated in journalism just over a year ago. Zazai says the lack of Internet penetration makes it hard to source employment or continue his studies. Zazai says he has “to take real risks and face security challenges along the road” to the provincial capital Gardez or KP across the border just to check his email.

Taliban online, officials offgrid

While local residents struggle to access a phone line, the Taliban continue to make good use of modern technologies. (Cartoon: Uzra Shamal)

Poor phone coverage and a lack of Internet connectivity particularly affect traders doing business at or across the border. Abdul Wahid, 29, of Landi Kotal in FATA's Khyber Agency, is a freight operator at the Torkham border crossing. Wahid says that aside from a weak signal from Pakistan mobile phone operators Mobilink and Telenor, no phone coverage is available at the busy border checkpoint, meaning the company manager often loses contact with his drivers.

While Taliban groups take their battles to the Internet, government agencies working at the border can hardly access basic services online. “Around 124 clearance agencies are functional at the border area of Pakistan and all are having problems pertaining to communication facilities including internet, mobile, wire service and online banking,” says Abdullah Shinwari, head of the Pakistani customs at the Torkham checkpoint border crossing. Shinwari says his unit banks in Peshawar, hours away. According to one officer at the Torkham border, at least 20 million rupees ($350,000 approx) is collected in tariffs and border fees everyday, which is then deposited in Peshawar. Torkham has a single branch of the National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) which has limited services.

Customs in the online market

The Torkham branch of the National Bank of Pakistan does not have capacity to handle custom's banking needs. (Photo: Farid Shinwari)

Officials at the border must also travel several kilometres to the market in Landi Kotal to access an Internet connection, says customs clearance officer Aftab Ahmad, a 32-year old from FATA. A service called Vi-Wireless was installed by the Pakistan Telecommunications Company Limited (PTCL), the largest ICT service provider in the country, seven years ago, “but in the critical security situation, it is not operating,” says Torkham customs chief Shinwari.

"The aerial wire service facility installed at the Torkham border crossing was damaged by people around seven years ago and it has been dysfunctional since then," Sibghatullah, a spokesman for provider PTCL, told Afghanistan Today. The spokesman says the company plans to install wireless Internet technology at the border when the 47-kilometre stretch of road from Torkham to Peshawar, currently clogged by road works, is completed. A journalist familiar with the Ghulam Khan crossing point further south on the Durand Line confirmed that mobile phone and Internet coverage are largely absent all along the closed border route from Khost to Waziristan.

Borderline reception

Line providers say they have tried to address the lack of mobile phone towers and network coverage in border regions and in mountainous areas in Khost, Nuristan and Paktia, but have so far failed. "There are border areas that have telecommunication problems and the main reason is the existing insecurity and the inability of our technical teams to visit those areas," says Naser Naseri, an official for the Afghan provider MTA, a major network operator.

A spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Communications says officials are aware of the deficit in telecommunications infrastructure in border areas but that poor security prevents technical staff and engineers from accessing the terrain. “With the help of satellite we have plans to extend telecommunication coverage and provide services to the 10 per cent of the population who still don’t have access to these services,” says Nasra Rahimi, the ministry's spokesman.