Iraq Goes Wireless

Telecommunications takes a foothold in the war-torn country

| March 23, 2006

Three years into the war in Iraq, much of the country's infrastructure is in shambles. Reports abound on how the reconstruction effort has stalled as the people of Baghdad live on about three to five hours of electricity per day. The telecom sector, however, is burgeoning, with the US Department of Commerce touting a handful of telecom companies as 'success stories.' 'The telecom market in Iraq offers lucrative incentives for those willing to enter it,' pitches one company president on the department's website.

Writing for IEEE Spectrum Online, Glenn Zorpette reports that Iraq now has more than 4.6 million 'wireless and wire-line telephone subscribers' -- a five-fold increase from before the invasion. Iraqis are becoming increasingly reliant on cellular technology. Some businesses have done away with landlines completely, opting instead to rely on cell phones as their only mode of communication.

But going wireless isn't without its problems. As with most infrastructure in Iraq, wireless projects have been subject to insurgent sabotage. And as with other reconstruction efforts, privatization has emerged as the driving force behind wireless development. Bechtel, Ericsson, and Vodafone, are just a few of the big name companies that have been investing heavily in Iraq's wireless infrastructure since 2003.

With privatization comes contracting controversy: Allegations of governmental impropriety have surfaced. Disgraced politician Ahmad Chalabi, who provided the United States with pre-war information and is accused of providing sensitive information to Iran, is a shareholder in one of the major Iraqi communication companies, Atheer. When the Coalition Provisional Authority was in charge of the country, Zorpette reports, it awarded a major telecom license to Atheer, a move that one Iraqi engineer called, 'a thank-you from Washington.'

But Atheer is only one of the major players in the Iraqi wireless market. There are two other officially licensed cellular providers, and that has created its own set of problems. Subscribers of one company are often unable to call subscribers of other companies. Elites have been forced to carry multiple cell phones, while those of lesser means are simply out of luck. Zorpette reports that many middle class families are already paying 25 to 50 percent of their monthly income on cellular service. And while laws are currently in place requiring companies to allow access to their networks, so far, those laws have gone unheeded.
-- Bennett Gordon

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