Building Afghanistan’s communication network: A look back at an epic project

by Staff Reporter | April 15th, 2012

Paul Knudson, vice president, Globecomm

With the aim to provide voice and data services to ministries and government offices in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, and to the provincial capitals, the landmark project became the backbone for a public telephone system.

Through the ages, the region now called Afghanistan has been at the crossroads of various empires. Its people and territory have faced conquest by the Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, British, Soviets and, following the September 11 attack on New York’s World Trade Centre, the United States. This turbulent history, the rule of the Taliban and six years of civil war have left Afghanistan a legacy of widespread poverty, decimated infrastructure, and possibly the largest concentration of land mines on earth. Few nations in the 21st Century face the challenges that confront the nation’s first democratically elected government today.

Recognising the importance of communication, the World Bank issued a request for proposal in 2003 to construct a Government Communications Network (GCN) for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Communications. It aimed to provide voice and data services to ministries and government offices in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, and to provincial capitals. The winning bidder was Globecomm. But there may have been days when company executives wondered if winning the bid was such a great idea.

Outside Kabul, there is little or no infrastructure, no roads and no electricity. Security is a continuing concern. We have had to unload trucks in the middle of nowhere, hand-carry electronics across a stream, then get the truck across and reload it.

Changing requirements

To support the new, democratically elected government of Afghanistan, Globecomm designed, installed and operated IP-based, hybrid fibre-satellite networks linking government ministries, provincial capitals, army bases and radio and television facilities. The company met the challenging conditions of the  country with the help of Afghan partners and by training locals in satellite technology. In addition to operating private networks for the government, Globecomm used satellite backhaul and hosted switching to provide the public with mobile telephony.

“The environment is about as challenging as it gets,” says Globecomm vice president Paul Knudson, who manages Afghan projects for the company. “Outside Kabul, there is little or no infrastructure, no roads and no electricity. Security is a continuing concern. We have had to unload trucks in the middle of nowhere, hand-carry electronics across a stream, then get the truck across and reload it.”

To make matters more complicated, no sooner had the project been awarded than Globecomm discovered that the Ministry of Communications had, under a separate contract, purchased Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) mobile switches from a Chinese company.

They were providing local mobile service in “telecom islands” but had no outside connections. Interconnecting the switches and linking them to long-distance circuits became an unexpected priority.

“It was a fundamental change,” recalls Globecomm vice president Paul Johnson, who is the account executive for Afghanistan. “What we originally planned to be a private network, rapidly became a public network. We are, in effect, the  backbone for a public telephone system, providing bandwidth, trunking, bringing traffic back to Kabul and providing international voice, video and Internet service. That’s in addition to meeting the government’s urgent need for connectivity.”

Another important change involved the identity of Globecomm’s client. Globecomm developed each project under the management of the Ministry of Communications. But when the Ministry accepted systems upon completion, the assets were transferred to Afghan Telecom.

“The goal is to make the Ministry a true regulatory body,” says Paul Knudson, “Afghan Tel becomes the operator. With each new network, Afghan Tel gains assets and increased value that improves its ability to attract outside investment.”

Multiple projects

The IP-based government communications network links 42 ministries and offices in Kabul via fibre and microwave, and extends this core network to 34 provincial capitals via satellite. Satellite bandwidth also links dozens of CDMA mobile switches in the provinces with Globecomm’s SatCell hosted switching system in the United States. All calls taking place within the footprint of each CDMA switch remain local, while calls between the switches or outside Afghanistan are routed through Globecomm’s Network Operations Centre.

The GCN turned out to be the first of multiple projects awarded to Globecomm by Afghanistan’s government. Next came the District Communications Network (DCN), funded by USAID, which aimed to push service into rural areas. Globecomm designed, installed and commissioned a satellite network connecting a hub in Kabul to police, fire and other essential services in each of Afghanistan’s 337 legislative districts to provide voice and thin-route data as well as internet access. Demand for the DCN has been tremendous, and Globecomm is working with Afghan Tel to expand the business plan and bring more revenue into the network.

IP-based platforms

The international gateway for voice, data and video, came next which was funded by the Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF). The Ministry originally specified a Digital Circuit Multiplication Equipment (DCME) network, the prevalent technology, but accepted Globecomm’s recommendation for an IP platform that was both less expensive and far more flexible. In addition to providing a gateway service for Afghanistan, the ARTF also provides a backup satellite facility for the GCN.

In two other projects, Globecomm has installed PABX switches at the national army bases throughout the country and integrated them into an existing VSAT network, and also provided a custom designed satellite truck to the ministry for mobile spectrum monitoring. With so much of the nation’s telecommunications depending on satellite, the truck will allow the ministry to effectively regulate spectrum, issue licenses and shut down illegal operators.

Collaboration with local partners

Paul Johnson gives much of the credit for Globecomm’s in-country success to its Afghan partner, Watan Telecom, and its chairman and CEO, Rateb Popal. “Popal worked with us early on to ensure that resources were in place to train the people needed to carry out the installation and commissioning of the work. Together, we have built the capacity of the Afghan workers and transferred a great deal of technology ‘know how.’ We now have Afghan technicians supporting the programmes as they move from deployment to network operations and maintenance. I have been really impressed by their desire to learn and their level of commitment.”

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