The US-led authority in Iraq has asked a Bahraini firm to stop supplying a roaming cellular service, jeopardising Baghdad's first experience with mobile phones, banned under ousted President Saddam Hussein.
A renegade service provider could throw a wrench into US plans for a tender next week for three mobile phone licences it plans to offer across Iraq.
Mobile phones unexpectedly sprang to life in the Iraqi capital this week, allowing holders of foreign-registered phones to make and receive calls as far away as the US and South Africa.
Within days, mobiles replaced pricey satellite phones as a major means of communicating -- at least for foreign journalists and businessmen. Few Iraqis have suitable phones.
"We have asked them to turn it off," a spokeswoman for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) told reporters yesterday. "They are not licensed to do that."
The cellular licences are among the most potentially lucrative contracts to be offered in Iraq, where mobile phones were banned to all but senior officials connected to a special network while Saddam was in power.
The roaming service provider, Batelco, has said it was testing its network and planned to offer mobile phone services to the public in Iraq this week or early next week.
Batelco, partly owned by the Bahraini government, said it asked the US-led administration for a licence and would invest over US$50 million to build a new GSM network.
Batelco was not immediately available for comment yesterday.
The CPA spokeswoman said she expected the Bahraini roaming service, which is shaky and occasionally disappears for stretches of time, would stop "soon."
She could not say exactly when licensed mobile service might arrive in Baghdad, where roughly half of land lines remain out of service more than three months into the US-led military occupation.
But she said it should be "weeks rather than months." The CPA invited expressions of interest last week and plans to request licence proposals next week. They would be due 14 days later.
Asked if Batelco would be barred from the tender or treated unfavorably if it continued to provide service, she said: "It's an open competition."
A spokesman had earlier said the tender would be decided "purely on the basis of value for money."
The US Army and development workers now use a network in Baghdad built by WorldCom Inc, a bankrupt US telecoms firm that is doing business under the name MCI -- but service is barred to ordinary Iraqis.
Iraq has not yet decided whether to use US technology or the rival, more widespread European GSM system that is used throughout the rest of the Middle East.
A decision to use the global system for mobile communications standard (GSM) would be a blow to US firms hoping to build a wireless network in Iraq based on the CDMA (code division multiple access) standard developed by California-based Qualcomm Inc.
GSM technology would allow Iraqi cellphone users to travel to neighboring countries without changing phones.
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