BACKGROUND: In 2012, the Afghan government announced a tender for satellite services; in April Afghanistan’s Communication and Information Technology Minister Amirzai Sangin stated, “We will start the development process of the satellite very soon. It is our priority to solve broadcasting issues and bring all our districts under coverage.” Kabul’s interest has been driven by the explosive growth in communication services since the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001. According Sangin, “Afghanistan... in the last 12 years has already seen mobile telephone coverage of 88 percent and penetration has grown from zero to 75 percent through the licensing of six operators.” Internet access currently is largely via satellite, but it is slow and expensive and fewer than one in 10 Afghans are online.
In January 2014, satellite fleet operator Eutelsat began moving the satellite to an orbital slot covering Afghanistan, renaming it Afghansat 1 after signing a contract on January 29 with the Afghan government. Launched in 2008, the satellite has been providing a wide range of services via eight Ku-band transponders. At the signing ceremony in Kabul, Eutelsat chairman and CEO Michel de Rosen said, “This MOU represents the fastest and most effective route to accessing infrastructure configured to deliver full coverage of Afghanistan and surrounding regions. It enables Afghanistan to scale up capacity as and when needed and to offer broadcasters, telcos and ISPs the immediate benefit of resources providing exceptional reach and performance. We are honored to be Afghanistan’s chosen partner for this important initiative.”
IMPLICATIONS: The satellite, formerly designated W3M, will cover the whole of Afghanistan and beam down upon a larger footprint in the Middle East and Central Asia. Financial terms of the Afghansat 1 lease have not been made public. The Afghan government hopes that Afghansat 1 will improve television coverage in rural areas and increase Internet access countrywide, a potent symbol of progress as insurgents and the government vie for influence and support. Afghansat 1 became operational on May 10.
Afghansat 1 is overseen by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT), founded in 1955, before the political turmoil which began in 1979, with the mission of bringing Afghanistan into the information society while preserving the country’s cultural heritage. For the past 11 years MCIT has pursued policies of broadening telecommunications liberalization and licensing and has been responsible for the creation of a framework under the Telecommunications Services Regulation Act of Afghanistan to provide affordable and world class telecommunications services via partnerships with the private sector, and foreign and domestic telecommunications sector investors and operators. MCIT’s mission is to create and further develop and implement a solid and transparent framework in Afghanistan to bolster development of the country’s telecommunications sector.
Television stations in Afghanistan are currently paying massive amounts of money to globalize their telecasts, so the Afghansat 1 satellite could reduce their fees. Furthermore, as most of the country’s TV channels are inaccessible in many of the country’s villages, access will also improve with the Afghansat 1 satellite. Sangin noted, “Now Afghans can install a small dish antenna to get access to all TV and radio channels across Afghanistan and central Asian countries.”
The satellite will also be used for research and monitoring. Afghansat 1 will support a wide range of services including broadcasting, mobile telephone backhaul and IP connectivity. Afghansat 1 has an expected service life of at least seven years in Afghanistan, after which the Afghan government plans to launch or lease Afghansat 2.
The Afghansat 1 satellite will also have a military component. Afghan Ministry of Defense General Zahir Azimi believes that confidentiality of this information is key to using satellite technology, telling reporters, “The first is confidentiality of the data – it is different to have a satellite under your control or one which is in the control of others.”
The Afghan government is looking eventually to have its own dedicated satellite launched into orbit. Abdul Malak Nazari, a board member on Afghanistan’s telecoms regulator recently noted, “We would like to make a partnership with an international satellite company to launch an Afghan satellite. The company will be selected through a process of procurement … they will surely pay for the satellite.” Nazari declined to say how much investment would be needed.
The question remains if Afghanistan’s incipient satellite potential will become yet another area of struggle between Kabul and the insurgents. In 2007 Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) hijacked an Intelsat-12 geosynchronous “bent-pipe” satellite, whose “dumb” transponders rebroadcast anything that they received within their frequency band to retransmit their message through Intelsat-12 30 main transponders, of which eight were dedicated to the Indian subcontinent, and 11 backup transponders. Intelsat-12 subsequently beamed down LTTE messages to the satellite’s footprint, located by utilizing a spectrum analyzer in conjunction with a satellite-receiving dish at a cost of only a few hundred dollars for hardware and software to identify the Intelsat-12 transponders’ “empty” space. As the Eutelsat 28B was launched the following year in 2008, it is unlikely that the satellite’s eight Ku-band transponders are equipped with onboard processing technology, as a decade ago the technology for blocking pirate signals roughly doubled the cost of satellites.
The U.S. also intends to use satellites to monitor events in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the bulk of its military forces by December 2014, with USAID officials finalizing a US$ 200 million project to use smart phones, GPS-enabled cameras and satellite imagery to monitor relief projects that will continue in areas deemed too remote or unsafe for Americans to visit after the withdrawal.
CONCLUSIONS: Technology in Afghanistan is a double-edged sword, as the Taliban increasingly use cell phones to detonate IEDs. The development of a cellular telephone network, boosted by satellite relays, is a technological advancement that all except the most conservative Afghans can appreciate.
The unprecedented growth of Afghanistan’s electronic media is a major governmental achievement during the last decade, which includes the Internet, social media such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, along with 89 television and 220 radio stations. In the sphere of television, besides Afghansat 1, the government has also converted its analog TV system into digital. Under the Taliban regime, Afghans had to go to Pakistan to make international phone calls, but today almost 90 percent of the population has access to mobile services countrywide.
As the LTTE’s experience in Sri Lanka proves, all modern technology can potentially be diverted to insurgent ends, and the development of an indigenous Afghan satellite capability is not necessarily beyond the reach of those hostile to the present administration. It is unclear as to what the political landscape of Afghanistan will look like following the drawdown of the majority of ISAF and U.S. troops from Afghanistan in December 2014, given the current uncertainty of the signing of a bilateral U.S.-Afghan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). But what has changed since 2001 is the evident embrace to a limited extent by both the Taliban and its affiliates of certain aspects of telecommunications advances. What is beyond doubt is that whatever Afghan faction ultimately prevails in the post-Karzai, post-U.S. military presence, the utility and ubiquity of satellite-based telecommunications is both too pervasive and too alluring to ignore.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. John. C.K. Daly is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
(Image Attribution: World Bank, Flickr)