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The Man in Charge of Restoring Iraq's Telecom

The White House put Dan Sudnick in charge of restoring civilian telecommunications following the Iraq War. The efforts of his staff, successors, and Iraqi counterparts are beginning to bear fruit.

11 min read

IEEE Member Daniel R. Sudnick served in Iraq following the end of the military phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the beginning of the reconstruction phase of overall operations. His tour as Senior Advisor for Communications at the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), in Baghdad, was to direct the authority's reconstruction efforts and its multinational investments in the telecommunications infrastructure. He oversaw the formation and launch of the Iraqi Ministry of Communications (MOC) and a nascent, independent regulatory body, the Iraqi National Communications and Media Commission.

Under authority of the CPA, Sudnick tackled the problems of restoring landline telecommunications networks, developing new wireless and cell-based telephony and IT services, establishing rules for frequency spectrum for civilian and military purposes, and even reestablishing the nation's postal system. His ministry issued over 120 radio and television licenses. Where only one monopoly telephone company existed before the war, six licensed operators now exist. Since January 2004, the mobile cellphone operators have added nearly 700 000 new subscribers at a rate of 15 000 new subscribers per week. There are now about five times more phone subscribers in Iraq as there were before the war, as Executive Editor Glenn Zorpette points out in this month's feature "Iraq Goes Wireless".

With the imminent stand-down of the CPA looming, Sudnick resigned his position in spring 2004 to resume his private sector career. Sudnick's former colleagues remained as advisors to the new Iraqi government and continued numerous reconstruction projects, including upgrades of the country's transmission network for multi-carrier use. The team has also begun the construction of metropolitan broadband wireless networks, is propelling the link-up of Iraq's nationwide fiber-optic network with international undersea cable operators, and is driving the design and deployment of a comprehensive land mobile radio network for first responders And Iraq's 230-plus post offices have been restored and now ship over 2 million pieces of mail a day.

Sudnick has Ph.D. degrees in physics and physical chemistry from Pennsylvania State University. He completed senior executive programs in public policy at Harvard University, in national security at the National Defense University, and in finance at Rutgers University. He is a retired captain in the United States Naval Reserve. He and his family reside in Churchton, Md., and in Lake Oswego, Ore.

He recently answered questions about his experiences in Iraq for Spectrum Online.

Spectrum: From observation and dialog during your service in Iraq, how would you describe the nation, in general, as a technological society in the modern era?

Sudnick: With few exceptions, Iraqis aspire to transform their country to one with a strong technological foundation, yet one that co-exists within their strong and culturally diverse heritage.

Many Iraqis in middle to senior management positions were frequently educated abroad, typically in European countries. They acquired language proficiency, technical foundations and industrial experiences that were then relevant. Unfortunately, many of these same senior officials suffered isolation from modern technology developments that have occurred over the past 25 years. Consequently, senior Iraqi decision makers at the various ministries have not maintained currency in their technological awareness and skills. Similarly, many senior officials remain out of touch with business practices within their respective industries. I witnessed this not only in telecommunications but also in banking, transportation, and energy.

When the CPA purged the ministries of officials possessing senior Baath party ranks, institutional knowledge went with them. Running the government with a newly promoted team of middle managers amplified these disconnects.

Younger Iraqis are consumer-oriented. TVs, DVDs, and similar consumer electronics abound. Cellphones have flooded the country. SMS text messaging has become a big hit.

The educational system, however, remains woefully inadequate for training future engineers and managers. And without a functioning economy, little capital remains to reinvest in R&D projects.

Recognizing these deficiencies in developing human capital, we coined the expression "adopt a ministry." By this, we meant let's find some spare funds to fund R&D and budding entrepreneurs. We began to succeed with moving many under-employed technical workers in the Ministry of Science and Technology to newly funded IT projects. One project was with the University of Texas.

Spectrum: Concerning your specific portfolio, as Zorpette notes in his article, Iraqis today are using nearly 5 million telephones, most of these are cellphones. That's about five times more phones than (the landline phones) they used prior to the 2003 war. In your opinion, what are the salient factors explaining this dramatic improvement in telecommunications infrastructure?

Sudnick: Communications is as basic to human life as is breathing fresh air. Cellphones brought deep lungfuls of life, and quickly.

When I arrived in Iraq, if two individuals wished to meet, they had to assign runners or couriers to convey the message. Only the privileged few had access to the few landline telephones. And remember that in prelude to the Coalition forces' invasion, Baghdad was subjected to a wake-up phase, which was called "Shock and Awe." Guess what those bombing targets were? You got it: telecommunications exchanges.

PHOTO: Daniel Sudnick Collection

Al-Mamoon Telephone Exchange

When I arrived in country, less than half of Iraq's estimated 1.1 million landline subscriber lines were operational. The country's rudimentary single mode fiber-optic transmission network, moreover, was subject to daily outages due to sabotage. Making telephone calls anywhere was chancy. And there were no international gateways. Government office facilities, including those of the Ministry of Communications, had been looted. When the network and its components were at all functional, quality of service levels, moreover, were anyone's guess. Indeed, the technical expression "QOS" was an unknown concept.

Iraqis, no differently than any other human beings on this planet, thrive on communicating with each other. And young Iraqis differ little from their counterparts in other societies. The preferred mode of communication now is the cellphone. Cellphones are called "mobile" phones there.

Such was the pent-up demand for mobile phones that Iraqis of all economic strata would sacrifice in other areas so as to acquire this basic commodity, once it became available. Many of the female translators working at the CPA Headquarters in the Republican palace would wear their newly acquired status symbols on lanyards around their necks, much like jewelry pieces. And with prepaid cards, the Iraqis would seemingly talk endlessly--men and women alike--until they ran out of minutes. How different is that from anywhere else?

Spectrum: In the same period, Internet use in Iraq has increased, quoting Zorpette, "from an estimated 4500 tightly monitored and restricted subscribers before the war to some 150 000 unmonitored and unrestricted subscribers." In your experience, how has this changed perceptions of the role that technology can potentially play in educating and informing Iraqi citizens?

Sudnick: One of the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) of which I assumed responsibility was the State Company for Internet Services, SCIS. After conducting some research, I discovered that this private network was largely a toy for use by selected government officials. Most of the IP routers were co-located in central offices, where they could access the Iraqi Telephone and Posts Company's (ITPC) transmission network. At the exchange level, users would access the IP network via remote dial-up from either private residences, government facilities, or occasionally from Internet cafes. Yes, the total number was somewhere around four thousand subscriber accounts. Uplinks to the rest of the world existed via VSAT terminals.

After the war, private Internet operators began to multiply. VSAT antennae sprouted like wildflowers after a spring rain. Although we at CPA were adhering to ITU technical standards and applying commonly accepted industry management practices, including issuing licenses for use of the spectrum (this is how we managed the cell phone process), we found the numbers of ISPs too many to track. So we largely turned a blind eye to entrepreneurial ISPs and their VSAT dishes.

The net result of this "benign neglect" policy is that Internet access in Iraq has begun to catch up for sorely lost time. With unfettered access to the Internet, at least Iraqis will have access to unfiltered raw data. They can then make their own choices with their newfound knowledge.

Not all Iraqi officials agree with this "hands off" policy, however. Some that I dealt with wanted to impose content filters and to block certain addresses.

Spectrum: Could you please tell us about how the CPA process worked in administering local and international contractors in restoring public communications in Iraq?

Sudnick: With fits and starts. The CPA was an incarnation of the Pentagon. The U.S. State Department and its surrogate U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which received stewardship of the sole source reconstruction contracts appropriated immediately after the decision to go to war, did not see eye-to-eye on many issues, including policy and use of contractor resources. I witnessed this conflict in ministries other than mine.

By contrast, our MOC team worked smoothly with USAID and its prime contractor, Bechtel National, to which USAID had awarded the contract to repair the battle-damaged central office exchanges in and around Baghdad and al Basra. I would have written Bechtel's technical specifications differently, however, so as to leverage technology advances of the past 15 years. Nevertheless, the exchanges were restored to operational status by mid-February 2004 with Lucent 5ESS class 5 and 4 switches. Our extended contractor teams began to upgrade sections of the fiber network to OC-3 and stood up an earth station as an international gateway.

Indeed, at times, we were toying with junking the legacy circuit-switched network and building as its replacement an all-IP network, running over an OC-48 backbone. Alas, the politicians prevailed. What was spec'ed and built was "like for like." Consequently, this decision precluded our architecting and building data networks and modern Operations Support Systems for managing multiple, interconnecting networks and software-defined virtual private networks. Humans can absorb change only so much. And leaping to "all IP" was too much for even many in Washington to accept.

Nevertheless, my team and I tried to fix this shortfall via the supplemental budget appropriation for Iraq Reconstruction. To my knowledge, Lucent, Motorola, Nortel, NEC, and other telecom contractors have been capturing pieces of our vision and roadmap. Let's hope for the best with these big networking jobs.

On the small business side of the equation, the CPA set up a bulletin board at the Baghdad Convention Center. Here, CPA would advertise small jobs. I witnessed steady traffic into the Convention Center. The CPA Head of Contracting Activity, who also oversaw the cellphone licensing process, would tell me that the number of small business contracts issued by his staff was steady, regular, and fairly routine.

Spectrum: How would you characterize the status of current efforts to bring Iraq's telecom back robustly on line?

Sudnick: Slowly. The ITPC remains a state-owned enterprise. As a governmental agency, consequently, too many interest groups with competing agendas spend too much time jockeying for position and power. Without the impediments of these political constraints, more progress has been witnessed by the private sector, mobile wireless companies than with the state-owned ITPC. Innovation will occur through the private sector more rapidly.

The ITPC suffers severe technological obsolescence in its physical plant; but that is slowly being fixed. What I found more alarming was a company whose culture was devoid of concepts such as business processes and customer care. Provisioning new service required layers of decision making. Even accounting standards, such as GAAP [Generally Accepted Accounting Principles] and its counterparts, were missing. Hence, the tools for making informed analytical investment decisions were missing. Holding employees accountable was rare.

Fixing this problem rests with the new Iraqi government and with its educational system. Fortunately, enlightened Iraqi officials with whom I worked recognized this problem. Awareness is the first step toward recovery. Strides are taking place.

Spectrum: Would you describe the interaction between Iraqis and the international cellphone firms?

Sudnick: Telecommunications will provide the infrastructural foundation for all of Iraq's future economic development. Without modern, high-speed, broadband data networks, multinational corporations (MNCs) cannot operate and, hence, will not invest. The MNCs require fat data pipes to run their global supply chains, enterprise, and financial networks that work in concert to move resources and money around the planet.

Iraqis are quick studies, however. I watched them learn from the U.S., British, and Australian contractors. As Iraqis move up from the lunch room to the board room, Iraqis will continue to learn and to catch up.

Iraqi private sector wealth has been squirreled away for decades. That wealth is now beginning to appear through private sector investment and via partnerships with global companies who "walk the talk."

Such has been the example with the cellphone companies. All of these companies have Iraqis as equity partners. Operational control is gradually being transferred to Iraqis.

Technology transfer is a body-contact sport. By working with competitive telecommunications companies who know the technology, and who have built and operate networks in developing countries, and now in their country, the Iraqis will continue to learn, and will learn quickly. Their neighbors in Kuwait and Jordan have demonstrated this ability to learn and to deliver.

The rapid growth of the cellphone industry is a tribute to Iraqi industriousness.

Spectrum: Would you please comment on the challenges -- especially technical ones--the CPA faced during your tenure with it?

Sudnick: Finding good people. As with any business, company success begins with good management. And good management begins with having talented people.

Having never had the equivalent of a CPA, as an agency in waiting--unless one wishes to compare CPA to reconstruction projects of earlier eras, such as the Marshall Plan of post-WWII Europe--the U.S. government had no available pool or recruiting processes in place to identify and tap needed talent to staff and run a CPA-like entity. Nevertheless, after about six months, quality talent began to arrive in my D.C. office when I returned on breaks and would spend an afternoon interviewing candidates. I got them immunization shots, a plane ticket, and a paycheck as soon as I could.

I used to say with conviction to suspicious Iraqis: "My job is to put myself out of a job. The more quickly I can coach you and get you into the game, the sooner I can go home to my business and family."

The living accommodations left much to be desired. New arrivals were assigned bunk beds in the "chapel" of the Republican palace. As one moved up on the waiting list, you moved into first a tent, and, later, into a four-person trailer. My target candidates were Iraqi-American ex-pats who were either telecom or IT engineers. These candidates spoke the technical lingo, knew their respective industry segments, and knew the culture. Without exception, all of my Iraqi-American recruits had family connections in country. Their desire was to catch up their country with the tail end of the 20th century while the rest of the world was progressing into the 21st.

And as [CPA Ambassador Paul] Bremer used to remind me: "It's their country. Let them make decisions, make some mistakes, and learn from those mistakes." I used to say with conviction to suspicious Iraqis: "My job is to put myself out of a job. The more quickly I can coach you and get you into the game, the sooner I can go home to my business and family." I must have succeeded. They have not invited me back!

Spectrum: How long, in your opinion, will it take to bring Iraq up to contemporary standards in the region as a nominal technological society, under the current pace of development, barring dramatically negative changes in the country's political climate?

Sudnick: If Vietnam offers any comparison, the process will take longer than anyone would prefer to see. The new Iraqi government and its emergent democratic institutions must foster a climate favorable for entrepreneurial development, educational primacy, and private sector investment. Absent these three attributes, and a society working in harmony within the framework of globally accepted trade policies, business practices, and international law, Iraq's economic progress will languish.

My hope is that Iraq will learn from its neighbors, notably Jordan and the Emirates. Half of Iraq's population is under the age of 18. Iraq must evolve its social institutions if it wishes to become a full partner in the global economy and to harness the energy of its youth toward constructive ends.

Spectrum: Finally, most outside observers have little real sense as to what day-to-day life is like for the average citizen in Iraq. We see the news reports about terrible events there, but we have no palpable knowledge of the mundane business that goes on normally--the stuff that makes Iraq a society just like other societies. What is your assessment of this complex nation in terms of the people who inhabit it?

Sudnick: Bananas. When I first arrived in Baghdad, I drove around town (before the security situation deteriorated) and saw mounds of green bananas everywhere in the street markets. I asked myself, "How did this fruit get here? Iraq is thousands of miles away from any tropical country where the bananas are grown!" Yet there they were: green bananas. Remember too, this was the time when gasoline, or petrol, shortages abounded. Gas lines in Baghdad were reminiscent of "even-odd" days in the U.S. during the 1970s. Yet, somehow, amidst this chaos, in the middle of a desert oasis, there they were: bananas!

I share this anecdote because I witnessed these "micro market" success anomalies daily. It gave me hope, just when the nightly rocket attacks would drive me to seek refuge in nearby bunkers.

After finishing morning staff meetings, I would don my body armor, jump into an SUV, pick up my "wolf pack" armored escort, and head outside of the Green Zone and go about my business. By the end of summer, after the rubble from the post-invasion looting phase had been cleared from sidewalks, not only would I continue to see more fresh produce appearing (endless stacks of mangoes, now), but also consumer appliances would begin to abound. In the market districts, one would see TVs, air conditioners, boom boxes, all new, in factory-fresh cartons, stacked five high and ten deep on the side sidewalks in front of the merchant's store. I thought, "This is insane." Yet somehow, a consumer-driven sanity was emerging from this organized chaos, in spite of the best efforts of bureaucrats of all ilks to deny its existence and for the press to report only the sporadic violence occurring in pockets here and there.

The average Iraqi wishes to enjoy a consumer-driven society. Iraqis hold this hope, just as we have witnessed in other societies with radically different and contrasting cultures. But if Iraq's people allow other tyrants to emerge in the place of the one that we booted out, then progress will be delayed.

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