On March 1, heavy rains struck Kandahar city and many districts. Afghan National Army rescue teams were searching for people who were stuck in the flood. Local journalists, on board with Afghan Air Forces rescue teams, were showing the rescue mission live on Facebook from helicopters while flying over Kandahar city, Zheri, Dand, Damand, Arghandab and Panjwai Districts.
I don’t know how Afghans were communicating during the Civil War because all of the communication systems were destroyed. My grandfather had told me countless stories of a prosperous Afghanistan before the USSR invasion in 1979: the more you use hydro and telephone, the more the prices will go down. Ironically, these two would become the most expensive bills to pay in the post-USSR invasion era in Afghanistan.
During the first year of the Taliban control on Kandahar, the Kandahar Communication Department opened a communication booth between the Taliban control provinces. The communication was conducted through a “Codan” radio. One of my friends who is an entrepreneur in Southern and Western Afghanistan had to go to the communication booth and tell the operator to call Herat province while his business partner, on the other end of the line, was expected to be present in a waiting room. The operator in Herat would shout out-loud and call the intended person’s name. In a lucky day, the response would be “yes” but often my friend had to wait until the next day. Then, a post person would “invite” him to communicate with his business partner. People in Herat, Farah and other provinces would do the same.
My mother’s aunt family has immigrated to the US right after the USSR invasion of Afghanistan. Whenever someone wanted to call aunt, he or she had to travel to Pakistan to make the phone call. During the Taliban regime, there were no asphalted roads across Afghanistan. A trip to Quetta, a city on the Pakistan side of the Durand line, which is 237 kilometers south of Kandahar, would take a day. In addition, visiting Pakistan just to make a phone call would cost lots of money. So, that would be the most expensive and difficult call in the world, both time and financial-wise.
The family of Farid, who was my classmate in an English school, opened a telephone booth called a public call office or “PCO.” Farid’s family, who had strong ties with the Pakistani establishment, managed to persuade the Pakistani government to provide them with two lines for long distance calls. I would visit the phone booth after school, to do my home work, when it was not busy. There was no privacy though. A small booth with telephone operator and few more people standing in line can hear whatever someone has to say on the phone.
The other way of communication was “Thuraya” satellite telephones. These telephones were very expensive and only few rich businessmen and drug lords could afford to use them. The Taliban regime had a contract with the Afghan Wireless Communication Company “AWCC” which happened to be the first Afghan private telecommunication company to provide telephone and internet services across Afghanistan. The heavy sanctions imposed by the US and backed by the United Nations, however, had forced the company to cancel the contract.
The question now is: how much the situation has changed since then? In 2010, President Karzai announced “when I took power in late December 2001, as the head of the interim government of Afghanistan, after the collapse of the Taliban regime, there was no telephone across Afghanistan. Fortunately, in January 2002, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan visited Afghanistan and he presented 3 mobile phones.”
Later, in 2016, during a visit to India, Afghan Ambassador to India Shaida Mohammad Abdali, who happened to be the aide at that time to the President, told me that he had presented a “cell phone” to the Afghanistan National Museum in Kabul as the first ever cell phone in the country. After the collapse of the Taliban regime the “Afghan interim government had granted permission to “AWCC” and Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai publicly made the first phone call on April 6, 2002, speaking with the Afghan ambassador to the United Nations in New York City.
Currently, a number of communication and internet companies in Afghanistan provide services across the country such as Afghan Telecom, Afghan Wireless, Etisalat, MTN Group, Roshan, Salaam Network, Wasel Telecom, Fiber Noori and many others.
Mobile Phones: During my last visit to Afghanistan, I was surprised to see young and older generations men and women using latest model mobile phones. Everyone was curious to know what kind of phones we were using in North America but I only had an old model IPhone6 that makes nothing compared to theirs. As a neighbor of China, Afghanistan markets are flooded by cheap Chinese electronics. I bought a cell phone for 60$ in Kandahar for a family member, the same kind of phone would cost me several hundred dollars anywhere in North America. Ten years ago, there were a few cell phones in my extended family but now I can’t think of a person who does not own a cell phone.
Currently, mobile phone service is available to 90% of the population (ATRA, 2018). Interestingly, there are 26,351,256 active mobile service subscribers out of a national population of 36,373,176, which suggests that mobile phones currently have 72% market penetration–five times that of ISP usage. For Afghans, smart phones are preferred to computers as they are cheaper and better value when equipped with Internet functionality. Smart phones have become the preferred way for Afghans to access the Internet.
Internet Access: There are an estimated 5,700,905 Internet users (assumed as subscribing to ISP services) as of Dec 31, 2017, which represents 15.7% market penetration, per ATRA (Inter World Stats, 2017). Internet market penetration is predicted to rise to 30% by 2023 (Harpur, 2018). However, the computers’ cost remains relatively high, which combined with low literacy rates in Afghanistan, slows technical adoption of computer-based ISP Internet access.
Facebook and Social Media: In January 2014, I was completing my degree at Carleton University. I had one final exam left that was scheduled for April but I couldn’t wait and had to go home and serve my country. The university allowed me to take my final exam at the Canadian Embassy in Kabul but it was my responsibility to find an invigilator. I posted on Facebook “Anyone knows someone at the Canadian Embassy in Kabul?” In 10 minutes, a friend from Prague connected me with one of the Embassy’s employee who happened to be his friend. His friend provided me with an invigilator’s contact information, I passed the information to the University, and in an hour I booked my final exam at the embassy. This is to show how people use social media in Afghanistan. Social media is a new form of mass media in the country. I couldn’t believe a cricket match in 2018 Asia Cup was watched live by 65000 people.
Facebook has 85% market share dominating other platforms such as Twitter, You Tube, Pinterest, Tumblr, etc. (Statcounter, 2018). As of December 2017, Facebook had 3,200,000 Afghan subscribers which represents 8.8% penetration rate (IWS, 2017). “Social media is still in its infancy in Afghanistan, with a small and mostly homogenous user base of educated, relatively wealthy, predominately male users….But while small, it holds opportunity for engagement and expression” (Altai, 2017; Internews, 2018). It is estimated there are more that 4,400,000 Facebook users in Afghanistan, with three of the VOA pages ranking in the top 10 preferred content providers (Socialbakers, 2018). Popularity of these sites appear to be growing by 20% per year (Socialbakers, 2018).
I was surprised to see people coming to a small booth in Kandahar city to set up Facebook accounts for 100 Afghans. As an example, one of the Internet providers offers a month Internet for 100 Afghans that can only run Facebook, for just 1.30$. Facebook not only encourages literacy because people want to read posts but also connects Afghanistan’s home and abroad, and persuades people to enquire more about modern technologies.
Altai Consulting. (2017, October). Social Media In Afghanistan: Users and Engagement.Altai Consulting for Internews. PDF article accessed November 28, 2018, from https://www.internews.org/sites/default/files/2017-12/Internews_Afghanistan_SocialMediaAssessment_Altai_2017-12.PDF.
Afghanistan Telecom Regulatory Authority (ATRA) (2018). Telecom Statistics. Accessed November 28, 2018, from http://atra.gov.af/en/page/telecom-statistics-2014.
Harpur, P. (2018, October 17). Afghanistan – Telecoms, Mobile and Broadband – Statistics and Analyses. Budde Comm. Accessed November 28, 2018, from https://www.budde.com.au/Research/Afghanistan-Telecoms-Mobile-and-Broadband-Statistics-and-Analyses/?r=51.
Internews (2018, January 25). Social Media in Afghanistan: Users and Engagement. Retrieved November 28, 2018, from https://www.internews.org/news/social-media-afghanistan-users-and-engagement.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia
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