NITPAA held their first panel discussion on the topic of Internet services and its effect on businesses, government entities and individuals. The discussion was held on the fourth day (June 15, 2015) of the IT exhibition at Kabul Mall in Kabul, Afghanistan. NITPAA proposed a panel that included members from civil society namely NITPAA, National ISP Association of Afghanistan (NISPAA) and ITCA (Information Technology Companies Association), private businesses namely Netlinks and Technation, ISPs namely AWCC and Afghan Telecom, Afghanistan Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (ATRA) and Deputy Minister of Ministry of Communications and IT (MCIT). Unfortunately government run Afghan Telecom, regulatory authority and MCIT did not participate in the meeting.
Discussion was opened by Said Zazai where he highlighted the current status of the Internet and telecommunication sector. The following is a script of his talk.
The Afghan IT and Telecommunication sector have evolved tremendously over the last decade. The national fiber optic backbone is connecting more than half of the provinces and planning to connect more in the near future has been a major achievement of the government. With the use of 3G mobile internet by the telecommunication companies, internet penetration rates have increased from almost nonexistence to a situation today where individuals have a variety of options to choose from, among the various 3G service providers. Also broadband internet existence puts Afghanistan on the list of countries where these services are provided to its citizens.
However, there are a number of issues that need immediate attention from the government in order to improve access to the internet, improve the quality of service and to control costs. International Telecommunication Union (ITU)’s 2014 “Measuring the information society” report identifies Afghanistan as one of the least connected landlocked countries in the Asia Pacific region following Bhutan and Nepal. The ITU 2014 report uses ICT readiness (access), ICT use (intensity) and ICT Capability (skills) as the three stages in the evolution towards an information society, which is being termed as ICT Development Index. Afghanistan’s global ICT Development Index in the year 2012 and 2013 was 1.55 and 1.67 respectively, although it has slightly improved, the global ranking has not changed from 155, which indicates the progress of ICT access, use and the skillset in the country. This index puts Afghanistan at the bottom of the list in the Asia Pacific region, following Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
One of the major concerns in terms of meeting the needs of users today is the quality of service. Performance measurement and monitoring of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and mobile phone service providers is something that the government needs to focus. This is because, currently ISPs divert customers’ attention by introducing new technologies such as 3G, 4G (LTE) and broadband but the quality and capacity of 3G in Afghanistan is unfortunately not meeting the industry standards. Introducing new technologies does not promise an efficient and high quality service.
The second major concern for the citizens, which is also shown in the ITU’s 2014 report is the price of the broadband and mobile internet in a country. According to this report, in 2013, Afghanistan was one of 13 countries in Asia Pacific where entry-level fixed-broadband plans cost more than 10 percent of the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita. The cost of entry-level fixed-broadband internet was 38.61% of GNI p.c., ranking Afghanistan at 141 globally. Mobile-broadband cost is 10.78% of GNI p.c., ranking Afghanistan at 121 globally. In 2012, fixed-broadband cost was 221.3% and mobile-broadband was 30.9% and we can see a significant reduction in price but current prices still do not justify the per capita income in the country and it hinders the use of internet and internet based applications that the private sector and public sector will need to adopt for their growth.
Private sector participants said that internet service is a commodity and without internet we cannot do anything. They also said that internet prices have gone down for Internet Service Providers’ (ISPs) and not for end users. There is a misconception that the internet prices have gone down by $150/mb. They said there’s hidden charges on ISPs which jacks up the prices and affects the end users.
A technical expert from government sector said that Afghan Telecom is not Tier 2 level ISP but Teir 3. Afghan Telecom buy its services from Pakistan, where Wateen and PTCL sets Afghan Telecom’s routing protocols. The expert also said that Afghan Telecom does not have a BGP policy and has no technical capacity to operate and maintain effectively. The expert also believed the customer service of Afghan Telecom to be very poor.
An expert from telecommunication and internet service providers believed the Afghan Telecom’s failure of good service delivery to be administrative or leadership problem rather than posed by the opponents. The expert said that Afghan Telecom does not have logical and physical diagrams. The expert proposed some new technologies that the ISPs could use as an alternate solutions to service failure, the technologies that were named are air fiber and microwave. The expert also believed that the government needs to work on the national backbone and also redefine tier 1, 2 & 3 ISPs.
NITPAA board member and a technology expert, Javid Hamdard, highlighted the causes of higher internet prices and suggested that solutions must be provided in order to mitigate the risks. Oil prices was mentioned as one of the major factors that affect internet prices. The lack of Internet Exchange Point (IXP) in the country adds up to the overall cost of the internet. Hamdard believed the Telecommunication Development Fund (TDF) must be used to work on these solutions. He also believed the government should be a regulator and not compete with other service providers. He said “the privatization of Afghan telecom according to its own bylaw and the general open market regime of the government and providing a level playing field for all players and in general MCIT improving its policy making and regulatory roles rather than activity competing in a private market through a monopolized and wide government owned infrastructure”. Additionally He also discussed the ICT sector’s transition from infrastructure and quantity to content and quality of services. Furthermore He talked about the importance of timely and credible sector research data and information to be made available to the public including researchers and potential investors.