Communications has been the lifeblood of government since the days when news traveled no faster than a horse could ride. Recognizing its importance, the World Bank issued a request for proposals in 2003 to create a communications network with an ambitious mission: to re-unite a nation whose history had left it divided, violent and poor.
Few nations in the 21st Century needed it more than Afghanistan. Its people and territory have endured conquest by the Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, British, Soviets and, following the 2001 attack on New York and Washington, the Americans. This turbulent history and the feudalistic rule of the Taliban left the country with an ongoing guerilla war, political power divided between the central government and multiple ethnic groups, widespread poverty and decimated infrastructure.
The Government Communications Network aimed to provide voice and data services to ministries and government offices in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, and to provincial capitals as well. The winning bidder was an American company called Globecomm. Using C-band satellite as well as 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, and provincial leaders had a chance to influence national policy without the risky and expensive journey to Kabul.
As the project got underway, Globecomm learned that the Ministry of Communications had, under a separate contract, purchased switches for mobile service from a Chinese company. The switches had become the core of “telecom islands” – cities where it was possible to make a local mobile phone call but with no access to other places. The ministry asked Globecomm what the company could do to change that.
“What we originally planned to be a private network,” says Globecomm vice president Paul Johnson, “rapidly became a public network. We became, in effect, 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 completed in time to support the 2004 election and continued to serve in the most recent national elections. Other projects followed, each depending on a C-band satellite backbone to provide national coverage. A District Communications Network, funded by US AID, connected a hub in Kabul to police, fire and other critical services in each of Afghanistan’s 337 legislative districts. Globecomm installed mod-ern digital telephone systems at National Army bases throughout the country and connected them by satellite. It also provided a custom-designed satellite truck to the Ministry for 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,” says Paul Knudson, “while Afghan Tel becomes the operator. With each new network, Afghan Tel gains assets and increased value, and those improve its ability to attract outside investment to keep raising the quality of Afghani communications.” Just as important, Globecomm’s Afghan partner company, Watan Telecom, trained Afghans to install and maintain the networks. “Together,” says Knudson, “we have built the capacity of Afghan workers and transferred a great deal of technology ‘know how.’ We now have Afghan technicians supporting the programs as they move from deployment to operations. I have been really impressed by their desire to learn and their level of commitment.”