AN international consortium formed by the Agha Khan's charity foundation has been named as Afghanistan's second mobile phone service provider after winning the country's first ever public tender contract.
The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED) was granted the Global System for Mobile (GSM) licence after beating six other bidders in a heavily scrutinised tendering process organised as the blueprint for future government contracts.
AKFED, which counts French media giant Vivendi and telecommunications powerhouse Alcatel among its consortium partners, secured the contract after bidding an initial entry fee of five million dollars (euros) against the two million offered by its only serious contender, Luxembourg-based Investcom International.
The new licence will remove the stranglehold on Afghanistan's fledgling GSM market held by sole operator Afghan Wireless Communication Company (AWCC).
AWCC, owned by a US-based Afghan businessman, has been rolling out its service across the country's major cities since its limited service was launched earlier this year by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
It currently serves an estimated 20,000 subscribers, although the cost of owning and maintaining a mobile phone is beyond the financial means of most people in the poverty-stricken country.
AKFED spokesman Karim Khoja said the new operator would offer state-of-the art mobile communications covering at least 50 per cent of the population of Afghanistan's five main cities within six months.
Unlike AWCC's frequently maligned service, which does not yet offer full integration into international mobile networks, Khoja said AKFED would provide facilities including text messaging, voice mail and global roaming from day one of its launch, sometime over the next six months.
"The work starts here," Mr Khoja said. "We see this investment as an expression of our economic confidence in Afghanistan.
"We are delighted that there is competition in Afghanistan and we will let the consumer make his decision," he said.
Before the launch of the first mobile phone network in Afghanistan, the country had virtually no international communications.
A creaking fixed-line network, which had a limited connection to Pakistan's phone system, was almost completely put out of action during fighting last year which resulted in the fall of the hardline Taliban militia.
More than two decades of war in Afghanistan has had devastating effects on the country's infrastructure and communications between communities outside major population centres are still a problem.