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Taking the lead in 3G

Masood Momin
Outdoing their neighbors in Iran, Pakistan and Central Asia, Afghan telecommunications companies are rapidly expanding 3G internet services across 24 provinces. Aimed at increasing internet penetration rates from…
2.12.2014  |  Kabul

Aimed at increasing internet penetration rates from the current 50 to 84 percent, the efforts are hindered by low speeds as local providers struggle to finance new infrastructural projects in a tenuous security environment.

In a drive to increase Afghans’ access to social media, the Kabul-based Etesalat was the first company to introduce 3G internet to Afghanistan in 2012, and remains the top-rated provider in terms of speed and bandwidth.

Dr. Salah Zerguerras, Etesalat’s executive director in Afghanistan, says investors need financial and security incentives to invest in local telecoms. (Photos: Masood Momin)

Five other telecommunication companies—Salaam Network, Roshan, MTN, Etesalat and Afghan Wireless—have since followed suit and hold 3G licenses from the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology. The private service providers Roshan, Etesalat, Afghan Wireless and MTN each paid the government 25 million for the licenses.

Some 350,000 people in 22 provinces now use 3G internet services, said Dr. Salah Zerguerras, Etesalat’s executive director in Afghanistan. However, most internet users complain from the low quality services these companies offer.

Public relations specialist Mustafa Kamal, 23, from Kabul has been using Etesalat’s 3G services for one year to check e-mails, Skype and access social networking sites.  He says he is “sick and tired of the weak signal…. It takes a long time for pages to load.”

Zerguerras says the weak internet signal is caused by Etesalat’s lack of strong transmitters. He stressed his technical staff is working “24-7” to improve services, even as 3G users urged the Ministry of Information and Information Technology to pressure telecommunication companies to improve internet speed and bandwidth.

Ministry spokesman Nasratullah Rahimi described 3G internet services as “good” and said the quality is improving.  “The Ministry of Telecommunication and Information Technology of Afghanistan has been trying to pave the way for a healthy competition among companies providing internet services so that the people of Afghanistan enjoy good access to internet,” he told Afghanistan Today.

 “After India, Afghanistan has the best 3G internet in the region,” Rahimi added. “We are much further ahead than Pakistan in this field. In Islamabad, 3G is just being introduced, while Afghanistan is planning on introducing 4G now.”

The ministry oversees some 5,500 transmission towers throughout Afghanistan. Residents in 24 provincial capitals have access to 3G services, while 22 provinces are covered by fiber-optic networks.

A customer browses the web at an internet cafe in Kabul. Business at such cafes has declined since the introduction of 3G internet services.

Sayeed Naseer Gharjestani, an expert on Information Technology, said that the only way to improve the quality of 3G internet is to increase the number of antennas. He urged telecommunication companies to share infrastructure and collaborate on the construction of new antennas to offset costs.

Zerguerras said that expanding 3G internet to other areas of Afghanistan is contingent upon stability, favorable user statistics and access to strong transmitters. He said he hoped that the country’s security situation would allow new investors to enter the telecommunications market, and urged the government to provide financial incentives for this purpose.

The Ministry of Telecommunication and Information Technology plans to implement 3G services in the capitals of all 34 Afghan provinces by mid-2016, thus increasing internet penetration to 85 percent of Afghanistan’s population.

Despite problems with bandwidth and speed, 3G internet has become popular with users in Kabul. Naseem, who runs an internet café in the city’s Sayrahee Alawuddin district, says customers have ceased using the DSL services he provides via Afghan Telecom. “The introduction of 3G internet has led to a decline in the number of my customers,” he added.  “I used to have around 70 customers a day, but now, it is around 40 people. Most people have internet on their phones.”

High school student Ershat, 19, says he has been using 3G internet for the past three years: “It has allowed me to be in touch through Facebook with my friends and classmates."

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