In the 2003 Iraq war, precision munitions demolished 12 of Baghdad's 38 telephone-switching central offices, as well as four key exchanges outside of Baghdad. At the same time, the coalition did its best to avoid damaging Iraq's electric power system at all.
Yet today, three years after the officially declared end of major combat operations, Iraq's electrical system remains hobbled by an array of problems, while its communications networks have begun to flourish. According to the Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C., there are now more than 4.6 million wireless and wire-line telephone subscribers in Iraq--five times as many as there were before the war. And Internet use has jumped even more steeply, from an estimated 4500 tightly monitored and restricted subscribers before the war to some 150 000 unmonitored and unrestricted subscribers today. Many thousands more don't have connections of their own but use the Internet at cafés and other public locales.
The reasons behind this stunning disparity between the electrical and telecom sectors are many. The vicious insurgency has wreaked enormous destruction on the electrical system, and bureaucrats made some bad decisions at the outset of the electrical restoration effort [see "Re-engineering Iraq," IEEE Spectrum, February]. Clearly, too, privatization has been used to great effect in telecom but not at all in electricity.
For example, almost all of Iraq's growth in telephone subscribers since the war is due to new wireless users--more than 3 million since the spring of 2003, when the country had no large-scale wireless systems usable by ordinary citizens. And all of Iraq's new wireless networks were built and are being operated by private companies. All of them are subsidiaries of non-Iraqi wireless companies or partnerships with non-Iraqi companies.
Like it or not, Iraq is charging toward a communications system that is private and fundamentally wireless. "The reality is that mobile telephony is becoming the foundation of telecommunications in Iraq," says an Iraqi-born telecom engineer during an interview in Baghdad. "Many people cannot get a landline, so they're going mobile," adds the engineer, who works in Baghdad for the U.S.-based consulting firm Bearing Point. "Whole businesses are operating with cellular phones as the only means of communications."
This coming June, the Iraqi National Communications and Media Commission, a government regulatory body similar to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, expects to award each of three companies a license granting the right to operate a cellular telephony business in Iraq for the indefinite future. The three licenses will replace temporary ones issued in December 2003 by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which governed Iraq in the war's aftermath. Even more ambitious, the Iraqi regulatory body has begun working with foreign companies, including Ericsson, Lucent, MCI, Siemens, and the Chinese firm Huawei Technologies, to study the feasibility of deploying a nationwide wireless local-loop system. It could, in effect, gradually replace the country's wire-line phone network, potentially leaving Iraq with a copper-wire-free telephone system some day. Based on WiMax, the IEEE's wireless data transmission standard that carries the designation 802.16-2004, the proposed wireless local-loop system would be one of the first--possibly the first--such system deployed throughout a country.