Black and White: Telecom sector in Afghanistan

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I was listening to a radio show this morning. Someone called from Badakhshan province of Afghanistan and shared a shocking story about the illegal sim cards being available in the market, most of which come from Tajikistan. There are 5 GSM telecom operators in Afghanistan which includes Afghan Telecom (public), Salaam (public and part of Afghan Telecom), Etisalat, MTN, AWCC, and Roshan. Out of the last 4 private companies, two companies i.e. Etisalat and MTN are the UAE investments while the rest two of them are the local companies owned by Afghans and some shareholders from abroad. Also, it is to be mentioned that 4 out of these 5 companies are providing the “so-called” 3G services to the people with very low quality at very high rates. Recently the MCIT (Ministry of Communication and Information Technology) has announced to launch the 4G in the near future as well. There are already huge concerns on the quality of services provided by the telecom operators in the market under the label of 3G and people have not yet welcomed the 4G license distribution decision in the country.  Afghanistan has a Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (MCIT) for the purpose of planning, monitoring, evaluation and control of the telecom and IT sector. MCIT has a regulatory body by the name of ATRA (Afghanistan Telecommunication Regulatory Authority) who has the obligation to have an eye and control over the telecom industry. So far the ATRA has been seen as just a formality body for the licensing issues and spectrum management.

Though the telecom and IT sector is one of the most well established sector in Afghanistan since 2002, but the very much required steps have not been still taken. The sim-cards are being sold at 70-120 Afs in the teleshops and regular shops while the golden, silver and platinum sim-cards have sky touching prices and to my surprise, when I pass by the surroundings of MCIT (Ministry of Communication and IT Afghanistan) and other parts of the city in Kabul, Mazar, Jalalabad, and other cities, I see many people selling the sim-cards by the roads for 30 Afs each and that too without bothering about the numbers being categorized as the telecom operators do. I always had this question in my mind that how is it possible that a sim-card total cost for a telecom company is 27 Afs minimum then how can these guys buy it and sell for so cheap prices beside the roads? What is the difference between the sim-cards being bought from a teleshop or a regular shop in the city and the sim-card we can get from these stalkers beside the roads. No doubt, no one cares of sim-card registration so far in Afghanistan and we have a very observing percentage of unregistered and disposal sim-cards which are one of the main security reason and threat to the country as well. So there is no chance of the intellectual thought that the teleshops and regulars shops are selling it expensive due to registration process. I am not disclosing the technical weaknesses of the operators and regulating bodies for the purpose of national security interest.

Coming to the point that I heard through an FM radio today, the above mentioned reasons are enough to believe that. In fact, this is not a news or speculation but an actual truth which is no more or less of a slap to the regulation bodies and telecom operations and their inefficiency in the country. This truth reveals many flaws and weaknesses of the related government bodies in the policy, management, efficiency, transparency, capability and control. To my understanding, the bodies that can be added to aforementioned specifications are Ministry of Communication and IT, ATRA, Ministry of Finance, Independent Directorate of Local governance, and Ministry of Interior Affairs Afghanistan. Of-course, the telecom operators tops the list with their low quality and high price tagged services in the country.

No doubt, these sim-cards are a strategic move by the opponent and neighboring countries against Afghanistan for the instability of the Afghan Economy and telecom and IT industry growth in the country. This is a facility provided to insurgents and criminals by the opponent and neighboring countries and it also is one of the main reason that Afghanistan has high score in corruption. To my understanding, these sim-cards is coming from Pakistan, Tajikistan, Iran, and UAE and the reason is the consent of our neighbors, neighborhood and cheap production prices for being out of the reach of taxation departments in those countries.

My suggestion to the government is that the ATRA should be an independent and very powerful regulatory body of the government and the board of directors of ATRA should work under a capable, experienced and independent individual and the board should have the high and independent officials from MCIT, MoIA, and MoF. A strong guideline and policy manual should be in place which should look into the telecom and IT sector activities from three different angles i.e. the technical, financial, expansion and regulation aspects of the whole activities done. Also, this way the districts and villages will also be covered with the telecom services for the telecom operators being able to be supported by the police through the Ministry of Interior Affairs (MoIA). The telecom operator’s system should be integrated with the National Data Center and ATRA so that the telecom operators do pay out of their actual revenue instead of the fake revenue they share with the MCIT at the moment. This is also very mandatory for ATRA to make it sure that the sim-cards get registered and the telecom company systems should show the authentic sim-cards along with the activities done through that sim-cards. ATRA should also have the list of the distributors and re-sellers of the telecom operators and should issue them a certificate. Based on these certificates, ATRA can hold a person for unregistered sim-cards and can mitigate the security threats and criminal activities to some extent.

On the other hand,  my recommendations for the telecom operators is that they should watch their systems carefully and accept only those sim-cards for which they have all the data in their system and which is produced by them only. They should have an implicit sim-card authentication system which should be unique and the authentication labels not be visible to the impostors in order to stop them from the illegal business of sim-card production. Also, they must implement the policies of regulating bodies and do not allow the activation of unregistered sim-cards in their systems. They should only give their sim-cards to their those distributors who come up with 100% sim-card registration data and that too must be made sure that the forms are accurate and true. The distributes and re-sellers who fail to do so should face legal action by ATRA. The telecom operators should share the list of their distributors along with the list of sim-cards serial numbers every time they hand them over the sim-cards to them with ATRA for control and monitoring.

I also have the fear for if we have illegal sim-cards in the country, there may be the illegal voucher cards as well in the market which we are not aware of at the moment. This is a huge loss for the country, for the telecom operators and to the people for their whole efforts and money is going to the pocket of an individual that we have no clue of.

تل دی وی افغانستان — زنده باد افغانستان

Originally posted on www.akazizi.af