By PETER GRIFFIN telecoms writer
Auckland telecoms company Argent Networks is helping war-ravaged Afghanistan go mobile.
It has won a $4.5 million contract to develop cellular and internet services in a country with few telephone lines or computers.
Argent will develop a billing system for the GSM mobile network set up in June by the Afghan Wireless Communications Company, a joint venture between US company Telephone Systems International and the Afghan Ministry of Communications.
Back from Kabul after closing the deal with AWCC, Argent chief executive Chris Jones said demand for mobile phones had skyrocketed as Afghans adjusted to a life free of oppressive Taleban rule.
"There's chaos at the Ministry of Communications, with people queuing for phones and recharge cards. There's a concentration of expats, but Afghan demand is big in comparison." he said.
Afghanistan's telecoms infrastructure has been shattered by years of war, so communications are having to be built from the ground up.
Wireless technology is the cheapest and easiest means of connecting the country to the outside world.
Jones said mobile phones in Afghanistan connected to cell sites which in turn linked to one of two satellites being used by AWCC.
Under the deal, Argent will extend its billing platform for wireless internet services which are planned for Kabul and other main centres.
The first internet cafe has gone live at the Intercontinental Hotel.
The former Islamic administration run by the Taleban banned the internet, but exiled Afghans have been active in maintaining online communities.
Afghanistan has no postal service to send monthly telephone bills, so the new wave of mobile users buy pre-paid calling cards to get connected.
The deal is a coup for Jones, who formed Argent last year from the wreckage of Telemedia, an Australian-listed telecoms company that at its peak had a market capitalisation of $A700 million.
Argent fended off counter-proposals from larger billing companies to win the AWCC tender.
Jones has done business in several eastern bloc countries, and so is used to working in adverse conditions.
He said power cuts and the threat of further political instability would accompany the Afghanistan deal.
"There's always going to be an element of risk. But the place is pretty calm at the moment and there's a big military presence."
A small team of Argent staff would set up the billing system, but local Afghans would be trained to run the system, said Jones.
Argent will also be responsible for hammering out network roaming deals with around 20 mobile operators so travellers entering Afghanistan will be able to use their phones.
Future revenue will flow from the deal as Argent services the growing subscriber base.
After a difficult year last year, Jones said Argent had become profitable at the operating level and had no need to go to the market to raise further capital after receiving money from a syndicate headed by Jenny Morel's No 8 Ventures.
Argent now had customers using its billing systems from Thailand to Romania.
Jones compared the demand for mobile phones in an Afghanistan under reconstruction to the explosion in mobile usage in China, where much of the population lives in poverty but 130 million people own mobile phones.