By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 14, 2009 - The Iraqi government is contemplating high-speed wireless Internet capabilities for its citizens, underscoring how much times have changed there. Security in Iraq is such that the country is rushing into the 21st century, and U.S. advisors are working with Iraqi ministries to leverage investments to deliver fiber-optic networks to the country. Air Force Brig. Gen. Gregory L. Brundidge, deputy chief of staff for communications and information at Multinational Force Iraq, said encouraging an entrepreneurial mindset in the country is a challenge as Iraq moves forward.
"Under the previous regime, the government controlled all business and industry, and that's what it was like for 35 years," Brundidge said during a telephone interview from his headquarters in Baghdad. "That's what the people grew up under."
The telecommunications sector was no different, but there is hope this will change. In April 2003, satellite dishes were a rarity. Two months later, virtually every building had sprouted an antenna. When the 3rd Infantry Division marched into Baghdad, there were 25,000 cell phones users in the entire country. Today, 25 million cell phones are in use, Brundidge said. "The appetite for these services is there," he said.
The Iraqis need to build or rebuild microwave networks and emplace fiber-optic systems. "The best way to do this is to use government funds and initiatives to leverage private industry," the general said. "In most cases, private industry can come in and provide telecommunications services faster, usually with a higher quality."
But this is foreign to the old way of doing business; the Iraqi parliament must pass legislation to enable this type of investment. "Laws have been discussed, modified, proposed and re-evaluated, but not passed," Brundidge said.
Three telecommunications laws are still awaiting passage in the Council of Representatives, and Iraqi and U.S. officials hope they will pass when the council returns from recess. The Iraqi government has legitimate security concerns, Brundidge said, but they are concerns that can be worked through.
The telecommunications infrastructure is more than just phones or Internet connectivity: it is the lifeblood of commerce, he said. A high-speed network would allow banks to more efficiently transfer funds and orders to flow into industry. It also would allow monitoring of distant areas, and enable officials to move goods more efficiently and provide services faster.
The security environment in the country allows this type of development, the general said. "There are still areas where this could be a problem, but someone could put in a fiber network linking the cities of western Iraq with little problem," he said.
A better communications network also would work to U.S. forces' advantage. "We tell the Iraqis that while we're here you have a ready and available market for just about anything you can bring in technology," the general said. American units in other parts of the world use local telecom providers.
Benefits would exist for U.S. servicemembers, as well. "They have Internet access, but it's expensive and, at peak times, it gets really slow because a lot of the connectivity is via satellite," he said.
"If the government, teaming with private companies, could bring in fiber networks and wireless wide-band networks, I would be one of the first to sign up," he said. "At prime time, when everyone is on the tube skyping with the kids, speeds get as low as 5 to 10 kilobytes per second -- not even as good as dial up."
The next year should see significant telecommunications progress in Iraq. If the parliament passes enabling legislation, "this will take off," Brundidge said. "There's an entrepreneurial potential here. Much of the opportunity lies in the hands of the government itself, and the mindset shift has to begin with the government of Iraq."