In May 2017, Afghan Wireless announced a milestone—the company had launched the first 4G LTE service in Afghanistan. That service is now live in Kabul, and the company plans to extend 4G LTE to the entire country within the next 12 to 18 months.
Building or upgrading a reliable wireless network in Afghanistan, where road access is limited and power is no guarantee, poses a unique set of challenges. The job has been made far more difficult by the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, which lasted for 13 years from 2001 to 2014, and ongoing fighting among Taliban insurgents, the Islamic State group, and remaining troops.
On Wednesday, a truck bomb exploded in central Kabul, killing 80 people and wounding hundreds. Such violence reshapes many aspects of daily life for Afghanistan's 33 million residents. For Afghan Wireless, it also presents major operational hurdles.
Access to spectrum is extremely limited, because the government and military have reserved so much of it for their own use. For its new 4G LTE network, Afghan Wireless plans to operate at 1800 GHz. Mike Hoban, chief technology officer at Afghan Wireless, says the company is looking forward to future spectrum auctions so it can purchase additional licenses for its next upgrade to LTE-Advanced.
Lately, Afghan Wireless towers have become popular targets for insurgents and thieves, requiring the company to post three to six guards at every single tower they install to keep watch around the clock. “We've lost a lot of towers,” says Amin Ramin, managing director of Afghan Wireless Communications Company.
The company was founded in 2002, just after the U.S.-led war began. Since then, its reach has grown considerably from the 34 towers the company used to launch a nationwide 2G network to originally serve around 50,000 customers.
For one early project, Afghan Wireless wished to link northern Afghanistan to its network in Kabul. To do that, they wanted to install a microwave tower in Salang Pass, a mountain pass that serves as a gateway to northern provinces.
But before they could install the tower, the company first had to spend a year building a road to the site. When they finally raised the tower in 2003, Ramin claims it was the highest-elevation microwave tower anywhere in the world.
Even once the company has built new roadways, the roads wash out on a regular basis, requiring it to rebuild some roads every year. And Ramin says most of the diesel fuel they use to power generators for each tower comes from Iran or Pakistan. Some of that fuel has a very high water content, which destroys the generators.
Still, the company has managed to construct an expansive network consisting of 1,400 towers that serve more than 5 million Afghans from all 34 provinces. Ramin says about 65 of those towers provide backhaul, and in some cases are separated by as many as 200 kilometers.
As the company upgrades its services to 4G, the network will require even more towers. Ramin says that for towers that directly serve customers, a 2G network could function if the towers were placed 6 to 7 kilometers from each other. But for 4G, the towers may need to be as close as 100 to 300 meters.
Hoban says this is particularly true in Afghanistan because the walls of homes and buildings are extremely thick, which makes it more difficult for signals to get through. “It's local brick, it's local cement, and they're thick as hell,” he says.
To build out 4G LTE, Ramin says Afghan Wireless will install 150 new towers in Kabul, and as many as 500 across the country. Much of the network is built on equipment from Huawei, a Chinese manufacturer. Today, the company also operates 350 Wi-Fi hotspots for customers in Kabul.
Hoban says Afghan Wireless’ 3G network averages around 35 megabits per second per sector, and he hopes to boost that to 75 megabits per second this year with 4G, and then up to 175 or 200 megabits per second next year by rolling out 4G LTE-Advanced. A typical base station serves three sectors.
In addition to serving its customers, Afghan Wireless also claims to be the largest private employer in Afghanistan, with more than 8,000 employees across the country. That workforce includes more than 300 women, Ramin says, which makes it the largest private employer of women in Afghanistan. The company provides training and tuition assistance to employees.
Hoban, the CTO, says his team has started to look ahead to 5G, but says there isn’t much use in trying to test it in Afghanistan before standards for the technology are in place. “5G is on the horizon, and we're looking forward to it here,” he says. “Right now, it's a lot of vendor hype.”