KABUL, 5 February (IRIN) - Checking the latest gold prices used to mean a tiring two-day trip to Pakistan for Abdul Wahid, an Afghan jeweller. But now, all it takes is a 50-cent phone-call from the comfort of his shop in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
"Before we had a lot of difficulties - now this makes everything so much easier," he told IRIN. Abdul Wahid is one of 14,000 Kabul residents who have rushed to buy mobile phones since a cell network was set up in Afghanistan eight months ago.
In the cities of Kandahar in the south, Mazar-e Sharif in the north and Herat in the west, another 12,000 Afghans have joined the mobile world. At the Afghan Wireless Communication Company's desk in central Kabul, a scrum of men, jostling, shouting and pleading for mobile phones, is testament to the enthusiasm of Afghans to leap from the telecommunications stone age to the satellite age.
But it doesn't come cheap. A mobile phone and connection costs between US $250 and $310, and a SIM card is $130. In a country where most homes and shops lack telephones because the cables don't exist, it is the only way to do business and keep up with the rest of the world.
Sabir Latifi, the owner of Park Tourism Group in Kabul, has just opened Afghanistan's second Internet cafe and the first to be privately owned. He spent nearly $50,000 installing 20 terminals in a room next to his Kabul hotel.
"As much as you isolate yourself, you damage yourself. It's time - we have to be part of the world," he told IRIN in Kabul. Latifi, who stayed in Afghanistan when the Taliban banned all Internet connections, as well as television and music, said Afghans had fought for freedom and should now begin reaping the benefits.
Over the 23 years that the country was at war, the world's telecommunications train sped off far down the track. But now there are many local people waiting in the queue to get on board.
The company plans to open three more Internet cafes in Kabul soon, and by March wants to have the Internet available in the other main cities, such as Jalalabad in the east, Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif and Herat. But Latifi is adamant his group will be careful. By stopping people using the computers for sex websites and frivolous chatting he hopes to show the country's religious leaders and government officials that the Internet truly is a valuable tool.
At the moment, the cost of surfing the Internet for an hour is between $4 and $5, preventing most Afghans from joining the Internet age. But Latifi's 24-hour cafe is still attracting more than 50 people a day, and he plans to double its capacity. "Internet is becoming the pillar of any economy, and Afghans can't be deprived of this."
The country's first Internet centre was opened in July 2002 by AWCC, a company owned by the Afghan Ministry of Communications and an American company, TSI.
The AWCC marketing manager, Ahmad Auqeely, told IRIN the company was also keen to expand Internet access across the country. It has already spent $46 million establishing its GSM mobile phone network, which currently operates in four cities. "It helps people doing business, keeps families in touch and helps people feel together," he said.
The current situation is a long way from what it was a year ago when people had to travel hundreds of kilometres to Pakistan or Iran just to make an international phone call.
During the Islamic festival of Eid, the company travelled around Kabul offering free three-minute international calls to poor people who would never otherwise have been able to call relatives overseas.
More than 2,000 took up the offer, including a woman who spoke to her son in Germany for the first time in 18 years, then burst into tears, overcome by the emotion of the moment, Aqueely said. "We are planning to have GSM franchise outlets where people can come into the shop and use a mobile to make cheaper calls without having to buy a handset."
And already another player is set to enter the mobile field. The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development is investing $56 million to set up a network in Afghanistan by the second half of 2003 in a joint venture with the French company, Alcatel.
Tom Austin, the country coordinator for the Aga Khan Development Network, promised its system would be better and have wider coverage than AWCC's, and said having competition was important. "Any profits from this will go back to the company or be spent on social development programmes in Afghanistan. The money will stay in Afghanistan."
Manoel de Almeida e Silva, the spokesman for the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, said rebuilding Afghan communications was a vital part of the reconstruction process. "One of the ways you can have a government performing and keeping in touch with the rest of the country is by having instant communications," he told IRIN in Kabul.
The speed at which new communications technologies were put in place in Afghanistan had surprised him, but this demonstrated the entrepreneurship and initiative of Afghans, he said.
Sitting in a Kabul Internet cafe, Naqib Ullah told IRIN he had got used to using the Internet while living in Pakistan. "Without it I feel cut off from everyone. One day, hopefully, it will just be normal in Afghanistan, just like everywhere else in the world," he said.
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