Baghdad Diary: Tech frustrations in Iraq

Prashant’s Note: This blog post was originally published by AFP on November 26, 2009. It can be found in full here.

by Prashant Rao

I love technology — I regularly read tech-related blogs, usually buy New Scientist, What Hi-Fi or similar magazines when I travel, and have spent more than I’d care to admit on gadgets and toys. I’ve bored many a friend and colleague while excitedly trying to explain how my latest purchase will make my life easier or better.

In that context, coming to Iraq was difficult, to the point that several people joked that they were less concerned about my safety than how I would survive without my iPhone.

Much like London buses, however, you wait and wait for improvement to arrive, and suddenly a flurry comes at once.

Relatively recently, one of Iraq’s mobile carriers added the ability to handle data communications and began offering BlackBerry services to local customers — you won’t be surprised to know that I begged our bureau chief (who already has a local ‘Berry) to help me get head office approval for my own, and hey presto, it’s happening. My French colleague, and fellow techie, is getting one as well.

In the realm of wired communications, a Doha-based company announced earlier this month that it was going to establish a fibre-optic landing in Iraq.

Iraqis who can afford the Internet in their homes (less than a tenth of the population) either get online via satellite or a version of WiMax technology, both of which are expensive and not particularly fast. A fibre-optic landing, however, will connect Iraq to the information super-highway and dramatically reduce the cost of surfing the web.

The government, meanwhile, announced over the summer that it wanted to auction two more mobile phone licenses (there are three networks currently operating in the country), one of which is to be reserved for 3G connections, paving the way for faster mobile data connections of the kind available in much of Europe, the United States and parts of Asia.

It is a far cry from the situation under Saddam. Until the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, there were no mobile phones here, and the Internet was heavily censored.

That all ties neatly into more recent news — this week, Google CEO Eric Schmidt arrived in Baghdad to announce that his firm will digitalize artefacts and documents at Iraq’sNational Museum and put them online for the world to see. During a question-and-answer session that followed his press conference, Schmidt pointedly called on Iraqis to push private-sector investment in mobile phones and mobile applications.

Obviously, Schmidt has a vested interest in this: his company has developed a successful operating system for “smart” mobile phones. But mobile phone penetration in the country dramatically outstrips Internet usage, and the devices are much cheaper and generally easier to use. I’ve seen former deputy prime minister Barham Saleh toy with his iPhone at a speaking engagement in London, and have compared notes on the device with an advisor to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki — be in no doubt, Iraqis love their mobile phones.

The Iraqi government has also set up its on the video-sharing website YouTube (which is owned by Google), with the first video featuring Maliki. The project promises increased transparency and greater accessibility of parliamentary proceedings, press conferences and the like. Whether that happens remains to be seen.

Individually, the steps the country is taking are basic and much can change and derail the progress it has made. But taken together, it appears momentum is building for a tech-savvy and well-connected Iraq.

Qais Rashid, the chairman of Iraq’s Board of Antiquities and Heritage, said it best at the press conference with Schmidt earlier this week — he was talking about the museum, but could easily have been referring to the entire country.

“Today … this institution takes a step forward,” he said. “It is never too late to take this step to catch up.”

Related posts:

  1. Baghdad Diary: “Get used to it – This Is Iraq”
  2. Baghdad Diary: Hope and Heartache
  3. Baghdad Diary: Dealing with the damage of Abu Ghraib
  4. Baghdad Diary: The Weekly Shop
  5. Baghdad Diary: New Beginnings
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