A recent Reuters article about a looming NATO offensive in Afghanistan’s Helmand province quoted several residents of the remote town of Marjah, including a farmer and a tribal elder whom the reporter “reached by telephone.” Does Afghanistan have phone books?
No. There are some online directories of international and government agencies in Afghanistan. But there is no directory that covers all—or even most—businesses and individuals in a given city or province. To get in touch with a company, you generally have to find its number through an advertisement or word of mouth or simply show up at the door. To reach a person you don’t know, you have to get their number from someone who knows them already.
One reason no one has collected phone numbers is that until recently, few Afghans had phones.When the United States invaded the country in 2001, there were no cell phones and only about 40,000 landlines installed. According to Ehsan Bayat, founder of Afghanistan’s first mobile phone provider, the country’s dialing code—93—was briefly sold to a porn company. Afghans who didn’t live in cities often had to go to Pakistan to place a call. A major component of the rebuilding effort, therefore, was creating a communications system. Four major cell phone companies were granted licenses to operate in Afghanistan, and the number of mobile phone users has soared to 10 million, or about 32 percent of the population. (Landline use has also gone up, with nearly 500,000 lines installed as of 2008.) The price of a SIM card and phone started at $300 in 2001. Now they cost a combined $11. The price of placing a call, meanwhile, has dropped by 95 percent, from $2 a minute to 10 cents a minute.
The country’s political and regulatory systems aren’t exactly conducive to telecom entrepreneurship. Taxes on phone companies go up and down unexpectedly, making it difficult for carriers to control costs. Making things worse are regular attacks on cell towers by the Taliban. Companies have responded by sharing towers, as well as the costs of protecting them.
Internet access is significantly worse than cell phone access. Banned by the Taliban before 2001, the Web is now only accessible to those who can afford it. Satellite access costs about $1,500 a month. (Internet cafes in Kabul charge around $1 an hour.) That price should come down, however, when the country’s $70 million World Bank-financed fiber-optic-cable project is complete.
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Explainer thanks Ludwig Adamec of the University of Arizona and Peter Bergen of the New American Foundation.