The US-led occupation authority in Iraq invited companies to bid to install the first public mobile- phone systems as it seeks to restore the country's telecommunications network damaged during the March 20 invasion.
The authority, led by US' proconsul in Iraq, Paul Bremer, is offering as many as three licenses, one each for the north, central and southern parts of the country, the authority said in a statement received by e-mail.
"If Iraq stabilizes and the economy grows, Iraq can be a golden market" with as many as 5 million mobile phone subscribers by the end of the decade, said Jawad Abbassi, president of the Jordan-based Arab Advisors telecommunications consultancy.
Iraq, the second-most populous Arab country in the Middle East after Egypt, may have to spend as much as US$4 billion over the next few years to repair and expand its phone network, according to the US Department's of State Future of Iraq project. Iraq has about 850,000 phone lines for a population of 26 million and no wireless network.
Nextel Communications Inc, a Reston, Virginia-based carrier that sells a mobile phone that doubles as a walkie-talkie, said it may bid for the licenses. The company's so-called push-to-talk product lets users talk to each other by pushing a button rather than dialing a number and is popular among construction crews and other businesses that work outside office settings.
"We are going to take a look at that opportunity," Nextel chief financial officer Paul Saleh said in an interview televised by Bloomberg. "A lot of people come to us because of the ability to do push-to-talk on a network."
MCI Inc, formerly known as WorldCom Inc, has already won a US$30 million contract from the US Department of Defense to install a mobile-phone network for coalition forces and reconstruction contractors in Iraq. The network will have a capacity of 10,000 lines.
Kuwait-based Mobile Telecom-munications Co, a partner of the UK's Vodafone Group Plc, has been awarded a license to offer cellular-phone services to coalition forces in the south of the country by extending its coverage from Kuwait.
"It's too early to say" if Vodafone Group Plc, the world's biggest mobile-phone company, will bid, US-based spokesman Ben Padovan said in an interview. "We're considering our position."
Bidders, who must submit their proposals by mid-August, need to apply for at least two licenses and be prepared to offer national coverage at a later stage, the authority said. The licenses are valid for two years, it said.
"By then there should be an elected Iraqi government which will determine the conditions for licenses," Abbassi said in a telephone interview. During this time, the winning bidders should be able to recover their investment and make a profit, the authority said.
Of the three regions on offer, the most populous cities are in the center with a total of 6.9 million. That includes Baghdad.
Southern cities contain about 5.3 million people and the north about 4.4 million, the authority said.