Less than two decades ago, the Taliban made bonfires of film reels outside Kabul’s cinemas, banned TV and condemned weather forecasting as sorcery. Now, the government that replaced them is seeking a partner to take Afghanistan’s communications industry into space.
The country hopes its first satellite will improve TV coverage in rural areas and Internet access across the country, a project that is political as much as commercial, as insurgents and the government vie for influence and support.
“We will start the installation process of the satellite very soon,” Afghan Minister of Communication and Information Technology Amir Zai Sangin was quoted as saying by Afghanistan’s Tolo TV. “It’s our priority to solve broadcasting issues and bring all our districts under coverage.”
Kabul’s crowded media scene today is a far cry from the days when a ban on photography and TV meant few even knew what their Taliban leaders looked like.
Now, Afghanistan’s press is among the region’s most free and dozens of channels compete for audiences, showing everything from hard news to cooking programs and religious discussions. Dubbed Indian and Turkish soap operas are among the most popular programs, with flashes of cleavage and bare midriff, shoulder or leg pixelated out to meet local sensitivities.
There are so many competing channels, many believed to be funded by powerful Afghan leaders or the country’s various international allies and supporters, that the country is facing a shortage of frequencies for them, Sangin said.
The satellite launch, in tandem with a shift to digital broadcasting from analogue transmission, should resolve the problem, he added.
It should also help with Internet access. Three decades of war have torn apart Afghan infrastructure. Telephone cables and broadcasting antennae have been destroyed along with roads and power lines. Internet access is largely via satellite, but it is slow and expensive, and fewer than one in 10 Afghans are online.
The Taliban has embraced modern communications since its fall from power, but an insurgent spokesman declined to comment on the plans for a satellite.
The progress of TV and the Internet in Afghanistan will be limited by the progress of other government departments. Many rural areas have little electricity, few tarmac roads and few jobs for villagers to earn money.
However, telecommunications officials say that the satellite will not be a drain on Afghanistan’s already fragile finances, because the country has been awarded an orbital slot that should attract commercial partners.
“We would like to make a partnership with an international satellite company to launch an Afghan satellite,” said Abdul Malak Nazari, a board member on Afghanistan’s telecoms regulator, which is handling the tender process.
“The company will be selected through a process of procurement ... they will surely pay for the satellite,” he told the Guardian.
He declined to say how much investment would be needed, but the cheapest satellites sell for hundreds of millions of US dollars and putting them into orbit costs tens of millions more.