Iraqi Telecom Chief Seeks to Build From Scratch Cell Phone Network Is Top Priority
By Arshad Mohammed Washington Post Staff Writer
U.S. telecom regulation is not so different from Iraq's except for one fundamental thing.
"As I was telling the FCC, if you refuse somebody a license, at least they don't come and shoot at you," Siyamend Z. Othman, Iraq's top telecommunications regulator, said in an interview in Washington this week. "It comes with the job."
The European-educated Iraqi brings a wry sense of humor to the task of building a phone system after years of insurgency, conflict and neglect.
The Iraqi telecom system was one of the most rudimentary in the Middle East under Saddam Hussein, with roughly 1 million land lines for a population of about 26 million and no mobile-phone networks.
Today, the Iraqis are trying to leapfrog generations of technology by going straight to an advanced wireless phone system under what might seem the harshest possible conditions.
Already, by Othman's estimate, there are between 4 million and 4.5 million mobile-phone subscribers, up from zero when the U.S.-led invasion began nearly three years ago. According to U.S. estimates, the number of land lines, which fell by several hundred thousand because of U.S. bombing, now slightly exceeds the prewar level.
Setting up cell towers is cheaper and easier than rolling phone lines to every home in Iraq, which has three main mobile providers -- all regional, rather than Western, companies -- working overtime.
One saving grace that the new telecom infrastructure has largely been spared insurgent attacks for a simple reason: The terrorists want phone service, too.
"Everybody needs a mobile phone, whether you are a terrorist, whether you are a government official, or whether you are a member of the public," Othman said in an interview at the Watergate Hotel. "In fact, we know of a number of anecdotes where mobile operators were threatened by terrorists for not extending their network to their [the terrorists'] villages."
Othman was in Washington this week for talks with officials from the Federal Communications Commission and the State and Commerce departments. He also met with U.S. executives -- chiefly makers of communications equipment, such as Motorola Corp. -- eager to do business in what Othman called "one of the most lucrative markets" in the Middle East.
Unlike many foreign visitors, the chief executive of the Iraq National Communications and Media Commission is not looking for money.
His agency expects to raise millions for the Iraqi treasury when it awards three long-term mobile-phone licenses later this year, making money the least of his worries.
Othman said that what he needs most are trained professionals as the government works to provide service to a population starved of communications under Hussein.
In a line that drew laughter from American executives this week, he ruefully said that "if you search the length and breadth of Iraq, you can't find one telecom lawyer."
Recruiting workers was even harder when his agency was inside the Green Zone, which houses top government officials and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Othman said, saying half his staff quit after a suicide bombing outside the compound.
Since moving out of the Green Zone last year, his new building has been shot at twice and his chief of security has been kidnapped.
The violence aside, Iraq's telecom industry bears striking similarities to the U.S. model, with fierce lobbying, government turf battles and entrenched players who resist competition in a business that can bring huge profits.
Othman said that one of his biggest challenges is maintaining the independence of his agency against political interference, particularly when it comes time to award the mobile-phone licenses this year.
"It's a big issue, and there is going to be interference -- I am under no illusions -- from the political establishment," he said. Asked if the politicians had ties to companies bidding for the licenses, he replied: "It's not for me to say. But why else would they interfere? You make your own deduction."
Othman said the interim Iraqi government that took over after the June2004 handover of sovereignty adopted a "belligerent" stance toward his agency, refusing to hand over vital radio-spectrum data.
Provincial governments also have resisted central control. In one case, a small mobile-phone operator refused to acknowledge his agency's authority and, with local officials' support, now operates as a monopoly in parts of Northern Iraq, he said.
Othman said his approach has been to pursue gentle suasion, rather than outright confrontation, with telecom companies -- something he described as a necessity given the lack of state control in Iraq.
"In Iraq, we have serious enforcement problems. The state is weak," he said.
In one case -- reminiscent of the U.S. telephone industry in the early20th century -- Iraqi mobile networks refused to connect to each other. As a result, people could call each other only if they had service from the same company.
Othman brought the companies in and persuaded them to connect, at least in theory, though calls do not always go through in practice.
"Let's say we made them an offer they couldn't refuse," he said, without elaborating.
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