Iraq Goes Wireless

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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Iraq Goes
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