ADB is helping Afghanistan's largest telecom operator develop nationwide mobile phone infrastructure and expand cellular services.
Kabul, Afghanistan - Decades of conflict devastated Afghanistan's communication systems. Fixed telephone lines are virtually absent in a country with rugged terrain, limited electricity, poor roads and postal services, and an unstable security situation.
The arrival of mobile phones, therefore, represented a telecom revolution, enabling the country to leapfrog straight to 21st-century satellite technology.
It has enabled families displaced by the conflict to remain connected, business owners to more easily search for good prices and remain informed, and isolated communities to further integrate into the economy. It has also provided basic banking functions in a country where banking is limited but where remittances play a vital economic role.
Demand for mobile phones was strong from the outset, but service rollout was constrained by limited financing options in the challenging political and security environment.
With help from ADB's private sector operations, however, the Telecom Development Company Afghanistan - known as Roshan and the largest operator with over 3.2 million subscribers - has been able to expand its mobile network infrastructure nationwide and improve its range of services. In July 2008, ADB provided its third loan to the process, this time $60 million. This followed loans of $35 million in late 2004 and $35 million in mid-2006.
"The development impact of mobile phones has spread across the country and through all levels of society," says Craig Steffensen, ADB's country director for Afghanistan. "Having access to information and knowledge is as critical for the education of the young - almost half the population is under 15 - as it is for the social development of women."
With expansion, Roshan has been able to lower the cost of its mobile phone services, increasing accessibility to the poor.
Among its innovations, Roshan introduced M-paisa, a sort of mobile wallet, enabling the transfer of funds by mobile phone in a quick, easy, safe, and cost-effective way for peer-to-peer transfer, repayment of microfinance loans, purchase of airtime, and salary disbursement. This has brought financial transaction services to a country where only 3% of the population has a bank account.
Countrywide, Roshan sets up public call offices for those without a mobile phone, partnering with First Microfinance Bank to lend entrepreneurs capital to set up the offices. Roshan also supports women-only public call facilities, an important feature given ongoing gender segregation.
The company is installing solar photovoltaic panels to power telecom towers, thus reducing diesel fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. And in 2009, it piloted TradeNet, which provides farmers with market prices through text messaging, allowing farmers and traders to secure the best prices for their crops.
The provision of mobile telecom services is helping improve the delivery of essential services such as health care, education, and security.
Roshan has pioneered a telemedicine project that links doctors in Kabul and in a rural hospital in Bamyan to more experienced staff at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. (The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development is Roshan's majority shareholder.) This potentially life-saving telemedicine project has impacted the lives of 400 patients and trained 300 Afghan medical personnel. It could play a key role in reconstructing the health care system.
Khalid Ansari, a radiologist at the French Medical Institute for Children (FMIC), uses telemedicine to transmit imagery from the hospital's magnetic resonance-imaging scanner to colleagues in Karachi. "If we have a complicated diagnosis, it takes just one click to put the pictures on our server and send them to the Aga Khan Hospital, which can send us back a report within 24 hours," he says.
Not long ago, FMIC established a connection with a provincial hospital in remote Bamyan, which has 14 physicians serving more than 600,000 people. In an interview by video link, moments after a class on infection control, hospital manager Matthew Rodieck said, "We are very isolated here, but if one of our specialists comes across a case that's difficult to understand, he or she can bring the patient to the telemedicine room and consult with a physician in Kabul or Karachi."
The link can also be used for medical education: the course on infection control connected students in Bamyan, Kabul, and Karachi, while videoconferencing equipment enables doctors and nurses in Bamyan and Kabul to sit in on lectures delivered in Karachi.
In Afghanistan's isolated areas, where traditions and infrastructure have changed little over centuries, mobile technology is connecting people and changing lives - one step at a time.