Getting it right for Afghanistan

First the Soviets built a telephone system in Afghanistan. The Chinese did too. The two weren’t compatible.  Afghan Telecom is the company ordered to sort it all out. It is using expertise from Globecomm Systems.  Michael Schwartz learns more.

First the Soviets built a telephone system in Afghanistan. The Chinese did too. The two weren’t compatible. Afghan Telecom is the company ordered to sort it all out. It is using expertise from Globecomm Systems. Afghan Telecom is a newly formed company, which has taken on responsibility for all telecommunications services throughout Afghanistan. No-one would pretend that installing telecommunications in this remote country is easy.

 

Most calls are still made from call offices
Politics rears its head more aggressively in Afghanistan than in most countries. Untamed by the British or the Tsarist Empires, Afghanistan succumbed to an invasion from the Soviet Union in 1980. The collapse of Soviet Communism did not mean the end of that system’s involvement in Afghan affairs. For in the style of larger economic powers vying for control over the third world, the Soviets had constructed a telephone system. As time went by, the Chinese Communists also built a telephone system. Were they compatible? As if…

 

Afghanistan lingered on with a teledensity which appalled even the hardest-bitten telecoms observer. Whatever one may think of the present political situation, Afghanistan has been receiving major investment from specialists intent on bringing the benefits of modern telecommunications.

One such company is a global provider of end-to-end value-added satellite-based communications solutions, Globecomm Systems Inc. It acts locally via its subsidiary Globecomm Network Services Corporation (GNSC). While Globecomm Systems built the country’s District Communications Network (DCN) which provides telecommunication connections between districts, central and provincial organisations, GNSC has been providing teleport services (in support of international voice and Internet connectivity) to Afghan Telecom.

Over the last eighteen months Globecomm Systems has won several contracts in the Ministry of Communication (MoC) in what is officially called the Islamic Transitional State of Afghanistan. In June 2004, for example, it was awarded a contract valued at US$14.7 million to design, deliver, install and maintain a modern hybrid broadband communications network. The contract was fully funded through the World Bank, and now provides voice, data, Internet and video conferencing services to 38 ministries within the capital of Kabul and 31 provincial capitals throughout Afghanistan.

Globecomm is also responsible for providing an international gateway to the global Internet and Public Switch Telephone Network, utilising a combination of satellite communication links, microwave, wireless links and fibre connections. The contract also includes continuing maintenance and operations services, as well as supplying the related satellite capacity.

The ultimate aim of the contract, which was won in highly competitive tender, is that ministries and capitals throughout Afghanistan are fully interconnected with a 21st century telecoms solution for worldwide communication. One spin-off from this contract was that Globecomm decided to establish a representative office in Kabul to maintain and develop its presence in the region.

On a more specialist note, Globecomm went on to win a satellite-based contract in autumn 2004. Under the terms of this contract, Globecomm set about rebuilding the MoC’s major international satellite communications facility in Kabul. The new facility represents a state-of-the-art version of the previous facility.

Globecomm CEO and President David Hershberg is keen to stress the benefits of up-to-date communications systems: “Communication delivery systems continue to converge at a rapid pace, allowing robust hybrid communications networks to be implemented at affordable prices. This will open markets throughout the world for a company like Globecomm…There are many nations in need of connecting to the global network in an effort to enter the modern world and Globecomm intends on continuing to vigorously pursue these opportunities.”

More recently, in September last year, Globecomm announced a contract won through DasNet Corporation (a network systems integration firm specialising in providing communications infrastructure solutions and services to federal agencies and the military). Valued at US$7.4 million, and with options that could bring the potential contract value to US$11 million, this contract is fully funded by the US Government.

Globecomm and DasNet will provide all the equipment and personnel necessary to support a communications network for the Afghan National Army, including operations and maintenance of the network for a period of one year. Once complete, the network will allow communication between the Ministry of Defence and the Afghan National Army.

Bringing Globecomm’s involvement in Afghanistan up to date, the company was, again last September, awarded a contract from the Afghan Ministry of Communications valued at approximately $1.0 million to provide a mobile spectrum monitoring and direction finding system in Afghanistan. The new system will be used across cities, remote areas and high radio-traffic locations to identify improper, unlicensed or unauthorised radio stations and to investigate sources of interference. This contract is being funded through the World Bank.

David Hershberg recognised that here would be many problems confronting Globecomm when he signed the initial Afghanistan contract. Working in a hostile environment, both politically and geographically, was just the beginning. There was, in addition, a lack of qualified locals, notably in engineering disciplines.

During the actual contract several unforeseen problems emerged. There was the challenge of the purely physical transportation of personnel and materials into the country. On a financial level, insurance rates were exceptionally high in view of the contract context. The lack of qualified assistance continued to make its presence felt. Even then, after workmanship had been inspected, it sometimes required reworking to match the contract specifications.

For all this, Globecomm remains optimistic and anticipates a viable and successful communications network in Afghanistan. David Hershberg: “We expect to expand the networks and keep supplying VoIP and Internet service.”

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