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Iraqi Telecommunications Upgrades Impart Hard Lessons

February 2009
By Robert Fonow

 
Mamoun Tower near the Green Zone in Baghdad is the major transit point for Iraqi communications.
Rush to wireless creates roadblocks in national infrastructure expansion.

Iraq’s technological telecommunications leap into the 21st century has left the country short on experts available to work in traditional communications areas. The success of reconstruction efforts in the country demonstrates that citizens are hungry to embrace mobile communications devices. But ushering a nation with little to no technology toward state-of-the-art telecommunications also revealed that introducing modern communications is about more than just raising a few cell towers and sticking cell phones in citizens’ hands. It can be a misstep that winds up costing the United States millions of dollars.

The telecommunications sector in Iraq today is widely considered to be a reconstruction success and a foundation of national stability. Before 2003, the limited communications infrastructure in Iraq was an instrument of state suppression overseen by Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services. Only a relatively small landline system existed, primarily for command and control of the Iraq military and for use by the political elite.

Today, a variety of services are available to every Iraqi citizen. More than  10 million Iraqis have access to mobile phone services. Internet access provided by small private entrepreneurs is available throughout the country. Fixed wireless voice and data services by larger private operating companies are available in the larger cities. 

Iraq remains a broken country, but a rapidly developing telecommunications infrastructure enables food and fuel distribution, emergency services, health care and government coordination, often in hostile conditions. Iraqi and coalition military forces use the system extensively, and it is a growing source of jobs and careers for the numerous graduates of Iraq’s technical colleges and universities. It is the portal to the global Internet and social network communities for Iraq’s youth and the next generation of leadership.

The system is controlled by civilian government officials, regulators and private investors. It maintains elements of both command and free-market economics. Similar to most reconstruction activities in Iraq, progress is erratic and conditioned on many unpredictable factors. 

The basic telecommunications infrastructure is still being repaired and rebuilt. Core infrastructure investment throughout Iraq remains uneven and focused in major cities. Much work remains in rebuilding damaged exchanges and in building modern telecommunications transit and routing facilities.

The Mamoun Telecom Exchange, for example, was one of 12 telecommunications exchanges in Baghdad destroyed toward the end of hostilities in 2003. As a consequence of those hostilities, the U.S. government had no civilian communications in Baghdad when the fighting stopped and reconstruction was supposed to start.

Fortunately, much of the transmission equipment was removed and taken to the homes of Iraq Telephone and Postal Company (ITPC) employees before the attacks took place; before the equipment was reinstalled, looters ransacked the exchange buildings. As a result of the prescience of ITPC managers, enough equipment was saved to provide rudimentary communications within weeks.

In May 2003, soon after the initial hostilities ended, Mamoun was selected as the major reconstruction hub for telecommunications in Iraq for its central position in Baghdad and proximity to telecommunications reconstruction officials in the International Zone. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funded the purchase of Lucent switches in temporary mobile trailers that were placed at the destroyed exchange site for international traffic and transit switching in Iraq. A basic urban system using the installed fiber network in Baghdad was working again by the end of September 2003.

In 2004, reconstruction officials decided that the U.S. government would fund the building of a new MamounTelecomCenter as a modern landmark in Baghdad and major telecommunications center. The location was already highly visible as the site of MamounTower just outside the Green Zone. Today, after numerous delays, the building is near completion and—incredibly after six years—the only discernible sign of major building construction in Baghdad. The building is scheduled to be topped out and new switching and transmission systems installed throughout 2009.

Additional exchange facilities are being built in Baghdad and throughout Iraq to ensure a balanced and secure system. Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) working closely with the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and Army Corps of Engineers officials in the Gulf Region Division have helped to arrange Iraqi funding for new centers in Kirkuk, Najaf, Karbala and several other cities.

Buried fiber optic infrastructure is being slowly but steadily extended throughout Iraq. Incomplete network management and fault reporting systems as well as insurgent attacks continue to make it difficult to get current data on capacity and uptime. Long-term plans for long-haul infrastructure envision a redundant series of large interconnected metropolitan ring networks covering the seven largest population centers in Iraq. These are being overlaid with three donor-funded microwave networks from the Turkish border to Basra and the Kuwaiti border in the south.

The donor microwave networks are nearly complete and should become operational in 2009. A Japanese-funded network from Mosul to Basra along the TigrisRiver received additional financing to complete several partially built transit towers that were delayed by insurgent attacks. A World Bank network from Jordan to Baghdad with branches to Kirkuk and Basra was delayed for several months in 2008 because of contractual issues with vendors. And a microwave network following the Iraqi rail system was completed and expects to receive final frequency allocations in early 2009. 

In 2003, mobile phones did not exist in Iraq. Today, three licensed carriers serve approximately 10 million to 12 million customers. Accuracy on customer numbers is impossible because each of the three companies—Zain, Asiacell and Korek—report customer and traffic statistics differently. However, it is indisputable that a national mobile service handles Iraq’s population and will reach, as in most countries, nearly a 100-percent teledensity. That signifies telephone service per capita of population, because more affluent citizens in Iraq will have more than one phone. 

 
The new Mamoun Telecom Center, just outside the Green Zone under Mamoun Tower, remains the largest active construction site in Baghdad.
It may seem churlish to criticize such success, because every Iraqi who has a cell phone considers it an essential tool of personal security that provides the ability to keep track of family members in a hostile environment. Still, the economic security of Iraq may have been served better by assuring that the national fiber infrastructure was completed, or at least fully funded, before actively soliciting bids for cell phone services.

After five years, the U.S. military and other large Iraqi and foreign companies and agencies cannot obtain access to reliable business-class broadband data services that are available in most countries. Success of the global system for mobile communications (GSM) industry has masked many weaknesses.

The lesson for future reconstruction activities is that the higher pay of private cell phone companies sucked engineering talent from national long-distance provider ITPC at a time when its engineers were needed to rebuild the long-distance and metropolitan fiber networks. The landline network is the core national backhaul network for all long-haul services including mobile phone networks.

In a stable country such as the United States or Germany, the introduction of cell phones led to a gradual migration away from fixed-line to mobile operations while the core network was kept intact. In these stable nations, many of the companies that were granted licenses already were highly profitable regional Bell operating companies or profitable state-run enterprises such as Deutsche Telekom. What resulted was an internal reallocation within these corporations of intellectual and capital resources. In Iraq, the fast move to mobile communications damaged the long-haul telecommunications and data development.

Early introduction of private mobile services has benefited investors handsomely but has cost the U.S. taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars. Approximately $200 million per year is still required for telecommunications equipment and satellite services for the U.S. traffic that does not require the high levels of security and would normally be carried at much lower cost over national fiber networks. Also, the lack of a completed and properly managed core fiber infrastructure outside of Baghdad has limited the development of numerous advanced data services such as telemedicine, banking clearances, inventory and manufacturing control systems that are essential in a modern economy. 

At 14 cents per minute, GSM mobile phone services are a high-cost option for many Iraqis. A competitive response is the development of fixed wireless services using code division multiple access (CDMA) wireless local loop (WLL) systems, adding capacity where fixed landline services are not available or are poorly managed. Cost of service per minute is generally less than half of mobile rates—as low as 4 cents per minute—permitting most Iraqis to afford access to basic wireless telephony.

At the Iraq Telecoms 2008 conference in October, the annual event dedicated to Iraq communications held in London, the two largest WLL providers, Itisaluna and Kalimat, reported large customer migrations from GSM to fixed wireless services as service becomes available. Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, Karbala and other cities have significant CDMA WLL rollouts providing fixed telephony and Internet access service. Services currently are being extended to Ramallah and Fallujah in Al Anbar province to maintain security by facilitating functional economic development of small- and medium-size businesses.

A huge training requirement remains. The situation in Iraq is comparable in effect to the period following the Cultural Revolution in China. A 15-year gap in technical knowledge and management capability is evident in Iraq. This is particularly evident in middle managers who were not able to keep up to date in the most modern telecommunications technologies in the later years of the Hussein regime.

Since 2004, the State Department and USAID have spent more than    $20 million in telecommunications and information technology management, technical and regulatory capacity building in Iraq. More than 700 managers and engineers are undergoing or have been selected for the training that takes place in Amman, Baghdad and Erbil. 

Several training initiatives were offered by Multination Force–Iraq (MNF-I) in 2007 and 2008 in cooperation with the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) through a program titled the Iraq Communications Coordination Element (SIGNAL Magazine, July 2008). The program was an integral part of counterinsurgency operations and the surge. Teams of junior- and field-grade communications officers were assigned to Iraq. They worked closely with senior DISA experts to help train mid-level officials in Iraq’s Ministry of Communications and its operating companies.

The program had many successes, including improving coordination of MNF-I communications requirements with the Ministry of Communications; however, it would have been even more effective if it had been introduced in 2004 or 2005. The lesson is to better coordinate the efforts of the State Department, U.S. Defense Department and civilian reconstruction efforts early in any future post-conflict activity to determine common goals and to ensure that all resources are deployed optimally.

Other problems have surfaced. For example, the international telecommunications system has a major structural flaw. From the Eastern Mediterranean to Singapore, north-south connectivity for Internet transit traffic does not exist. All Internet and voice traffic flows along a path that follows a circular course around the center of the globe from the Mediterranean through Suez into the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean and through the Malaccan Straits between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

The problem was identified dramatically in late January 2008 when several undersea cables in the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and near the Malaysian coast were cut. India, Pakistan and several Gulf countries lost significant amounts of telecommunications capacity, causing widespread outages and raising concerns among governments, militaries and business communities. Whether accidental or intentional, these cuts exposed vulnerabilities in the system to terrorist groups around the world. Jihadist Web sites began advocating the cutting of undersea cables as a tactic of disruption.

Private sector and government interest in the countries affected by the 2008 cable cuts is growing to work with Iraq in adding transit capacity from Gulf and South Asia countries through Iraq and Turkey into Europe. A route through Iraq would be immensely profitable for the Ministry of Communications and would lessen its reliance on the Iraqi government for capital and operations finance.

Much progress has been made, but much work remains to be done in the development of Iraq’s telecommunications infrastructure and service offers. In addition, it is too early to know if Iraq’s progress in telecommunications will continue without coalition security as a safety net. But in early 2009, the foundation is in place for a modern telecommunications infrastructure that within five years, at current levels of progress, can be equal to many countries in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Robert Fonow, managing director of RGI Limited, served as a senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Communications. He can be contacted at BobFonow@rgiltd.com.

Web Resources
Iraqi Ministry of Communications:
www.iraqimoc.net/e_aboutus.htm
Multinational Force–Iraq: www.mnf-iraq.com