Iraqi Kurdistan Telecom Service: Head and Shoulders Past the Rest of Iraq

By Tracey E. Schelmetic June 16, 2011

When Iraqi Kurdistan emerged as an autonomous entity in 1992 following the first Gulf War, everyone knew the political separation from the rest of Iraq would be considerable. Fast-forward nearly 20 years, it turns the technological separation has become equally dramatic.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the U.S. government, the market for wireless and broadband communications opened considerably and those changes are still taking place. The Kurdish region, however, was freed from Saddam’s grip 10 years prior, and has been successfully managing its own telecom sector during that time, reported Reuters today.

Mobile phones were first introduced in 1999 when AsiaCell opened its doors as the first phone company in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya. The company now has a customer base of 8.5 million users throughout Iraq.

While service is still patchy in more remote areas, the Kurdish telecoms industry has had longer to mature, and can largely avoid problems such as military jamming of signals (to prevent mobile phones being used to detonate bombs) as the area has been free from conflict since 1992, unlike the rest of the country.

“The situation of telecommunications is very good in Kurdistan,” said Hameed Akrawi, VP of Korek Telecom, a mobile phone firm established in Arbil in 2001 and owned by a nephew of Kurdistan president Masoud Barzani. “We have more experience than the rest of Iraq, because we had freedom (earlier).”

In the Iraqi Kurdish city of Arbil, which slick smart shopping malls and Western-style coffee shops, citizens and visitors are able to use Mobitel’s 3G mobile phones and connect to the Internet using Wi-Fi.

All three firms – Korek, AsiaCell and Mobitel – secured $1.25 billion licenses each to operate in Iraq in 2007.

However, as in the rest of Iraq, companies operating in the Kurdish region also complain about a monopoly over fiber optic cables. Allai Newroz Telecom, which introduced a fiber optic network to the Kurdish area in 2009, has a four-year renewable contract with the Kurdistan Regional Government and provides services in Arbil, Sulaimaniya and Dahuk. Allai Newroz, however, experiences continuous network overloads: a network designed to support 1,500 users actually supports about 6,000, the company’s public relations director told Reuters.

Iraqi telecom companies have blamed a lack of cooperation between Iraq’s telecoms regulator, the Communications and Media Commission (CMC) and the Kurdish authorities for a lack of progress.

“The lack of fast broadband Internet has hindered Iraq’s economic progress,” Diar Ahmed, chief executive of AsiaCell told Reuters. “CMC has no say here (in Kurdistan) ... There is chaos in the telecoms field in Iraq,” he said.

Despite the fact that networks are faster in Kurdistan than the rest of Iraq, many people still complain that they are not fast enough for modern Web browsing. One student, 21-year-old Meran Mubarak, complained to Reuters that the slower speeds aren’t meeting his needs.

“The Internet doesn’t download fast enough. But I can still open e-mails and use Facebook,” said Mubarak.

Want to learn more about the latest in communications and technology? Then be sure to attend ITEXPO West 2011, taking place Sept. 13-15, 2011, in Austin, Texas. ITEXPO offers an educational program to help corporate decision makers select the right IP-based voice, video, fax and unified communications solutions to improve their operations. It's also where service providers learn how to profitably roll out the services their subscribers are clamoring for – and where resellers can learn about new growth opportunities. To register, click here.

Tracey Schelmetic is a contributing editor for TechZone360. To read more of Tracey's articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

TechZone360 Contributor

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