In 2003 the World Bank issued an RFP to create a communications network with an ambitious mission: to begin the long process to reunite a nation whose history had left it divided, violent and poor.
Few nations in our time need it more than this one. Its people and territory have endured conquest by the Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, British and Soviets. Following 2001 attacks in the USA, the Americans also arrived. The feudalistic presence of the Taliban have left the country with an ongoing war and struggle between the central government and ethnic groups. To many, not much has changed.
But look closer. If we were to ask which of three nations, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, were the first to implement 3G and offered the lowest telecommunications costs, most would not choose the right answer. Afghanistan.
A bid for a government communications network was put out to provide services to ministries and offices in Kabul. The winning bid went to Globecomm, an American company whose reputation for installing satellite networks in bad neighborhoods was well-known. Using C-band satellite, optical fiber and microwave links, the company connected 42 ministries and offices in Kabul and 34 provincial capitals. For the first time, central government had reliable telephone and email communications with the provinces. Provincial leaders had a chance to influence national policy without the risky journey to Kabul.
Globecomm said it learned that the Ministry of Communications had separately purchased switches for mobile service from China. The switches had become the core of “telecom islands” – places where it was possible to make a local mobile phone call but with no access to other places. Globecomm changed that.
“What we originally planned as a private network,” says Globecomm’s Paul Johnson, “rapidly became a public network. We effectively became the backbone for a public telephone system, connected by C-band satellite to other cities over the Government Communications Network and, through our international gateway, to the rest of the world.”
The government network was functioning by the historic 2004 election. Other projects followed, each depending on a satellite backbone to provide national coverage. A District Communications Network connected a hub in Kabul to police, fire and other critical services in the country’s 337 legislative districts. Globecomm installed digital telephone systems at National Army bases and connected them by satellite. A custom-designed satellite truck enabled mobile spectrum monitoring. With so much of the nation’s communications depending on satellite, the truck gave the Ministry the ability to enforce spectrum regulations, issue licenses and shut down illegal operators.
Globecomm’s executives are proudest of the fact that each project created assets that were transferred to Afghan Telecom. The goal is to make the Ministry a true regulatory body while Afghan Tel becomes the operator. It is working.
The final outcome is far from certain in Afghanistan. But the nation’s ability to attract outside investment and to keep raising the quality of Afghani communications, gives hope to a day when Afghan sees a better world. #bettersatelliteworld.
With a little help from our friends at Via Satellite and fellow global non-profits ESOA, GVF, WTA, SIA and CASBA, SSPI has launched a campaign to tell the human side of the satellite story. We call it “Better Satellite World.” It is designed to gather stories from around the world and to change the global conversation about this amazing industry. Join us by sending us your story. #bettersatelliteworld