Afghanistan: A Digital Silk Road

Mohammed Ayas, a former Afghan militiaman, displays mobile phones he sells at his Kabul store. (Photo: Shah Marai / AFP-Getty Images)

Before the fall of the Taliban in November 2001, 27 million Afghan citizens had to make do with approximately 20,000 working telephone lines. Domestic connections were spotty, while only a handful of expensive satellite phones could dial internationally. Today, through the extraordinary efforts of the Afghan Wireless Communication Company and its parent company, Telephone Systems International (TSI), more than 300,000 citizens subscribe to the Afghan wireless network, with coverage in twenty cities and an additional twenty cities slated for service by the end of the summer.

The development of the Afghan wireless network has been the mission of Ehsan Bayat, an Afghan-American who fled Afghanistan in 1980. Observing the need for a comprehensive communications network in Afghanistan, Bayat partnered his United States-based company, TSI, with the Afghan Ministry of Communications to launch a wireless network that Bayat hopes will be “the digital artery of our nation, allowing communication, commerce, and electronic exchanges to flow easily among all Afghans.”

This digital network “leaves no part of Afghanistan untouched,” according to Bayat, who adds “by the end of the summer, we will have three-quarters of the nation covered.” The speed with which TSI and Afghan Wireless have been able to build the mobile network has made it the provider of choice for government agencies and businesses, especially in and around Kabul. Afghan Wireless provided the communications support for the Loya Jirga meetings that formed the interim Afghan administration, and opened Kabul’s first-ever public Internet cafe in 2002. The police and fire departments in Kabul have received free telephones for emergency service support.

Demand for private service has been much greater than anticipated, but TSI has consistently devoted more resources to accommodate demand, while simultaneously expanding service throughout the country. By December 2002, the service provided by the network was sophisticated enough that during a three-day holiday period, 300,000 calls, many of them international, were successfully connected. “When a mother thanks me for connecting her with her daughter or son,” says Bayat, “that makes it all worthwhile.”

Bayat emphasizes that this desire to communicate, both with other Afghans and with the outside world, will propel Afghanistan through its rebuilding and development. It was crucial that the ability to communicate be one of the first infrastructure problems addressed by the new government. This is “a moment signifying renewal as well as change,” says Bayat. “Underpinning all of [our] new-found freedoms is the freedom to communicate. The power of people talking with one another and sharing information … [will be] one of the fastest ways to help Afghanistan develop.”

Building on his success with the wireless network, Bayat will launch television and radio stations simultaneously in early August of this year. Ariana Television Network (ATN) will be broadcast by the most powerful television transmitter in the country, and, in a field of competitors that show primarily programs from abroad, ATN will provide more local content than any other Afghan television station. “The main difference is that we’ll try to get maximum local content and try to be as educational as possible,” says Bayat. “It will be like a PBS.”

The television station already employs more than 50 Afghans, who have created at least three months of programming ready to air. Live news will be broadcast several times a day in Dari and Pashtu, the two official languages, and documentary features on warlordism, poppy production, crime, and the upcoming parliamentary elections are being produced.

Bayat is also keen to develop cultural and educational programs for children traumatized by years of war and displacement. “One of the things we’ve lost during the last 25 years of war has been the cultural heritage of Afghanistan,” says Bayat. “We have been refugees, here and abroad. We need to reignite the interest in Afghanistan before the war, and bring back Afghan culture and traditions.”

Afghanistan is uniquely placed to become the hub of a “digital Silk Road,” according to Bayat. The network of trade routes known as the Silk Road, which crossed Afghanistan and linked the people and traditions of Asia and Europe, created the first global exchange of knowledge, goods, and culture. Data traffic is creating a digital trade path that passes once again through Afghanistan. The acute penetration of wireless technology in Afghanistan, and the reach of its media, will be an advantage in the region as communication systems are integrated. “Once you start with 21st-century technology [like wireless], there is a greater potential for becoming the hub of technology and communications for countries around you,” says Bayat. “That’s why we’re building a backbone system in Afghanistan, not just for us, but for the whole region.”

The larger goal behind these communications and media ventures is building democracy, Bayat insists. “I’m afraid of politics,” he chuckles, but “promoting democracy is the goal that I have. It means having free and independent radio and television. We are in the crossroads of Asia, but right now we need better communications, transportation and electricity. And I will do whatever possible to help.”