E-commerce, Web Communication and Internet industry in Afghanistan

Talking about e-commerce and other related systems such as internet shops, payment systems and etc. firstly it's necessary to say a couple of words about the situation with telecommunications sector and the development of the Internet as a whole. It's well known that nowadays the development of information technologies is one of the most important parts of the national development as it promotes improvement of the existing management system, mobilization of investment, development of education. As for the telecommunications sector it is necessary to say that for a long time Afghanistan was isolated from other countries which caused a 20-year gap in development of the technologies and the so-called digital divide as well. Today, this is a major and the most obvious obstacle to carry out the reconstruction and the restoration of public and private sector institutions and services. Nowadays Afghanistan can hardly be associated with technological development process, though the country appears not to be the same like it used to be 20-30 years ago. Today mass media, mobile communication and the Internet are the ordinary things.


Telecommunication services in the country are provided by Afghan Wireless, Etisalat, Roshan, Areeba and Afghan Telecom. In 2006, the Afghan Ministry of Communications signed a US$64.5 million agreement with ZTE Corporation for the establishment of a countrywide fibre optic cable network. This will improve telephone, internet, television and radio broadcast services throughout the country.


Internet penetration rate in Afghanistan is 0.08. Access to the Internet is often gauged by a number of registered online computers -- computers with valid IP addresses. One of the top priorities of the government of Afghanistan is to provide internet access up till small village level by 2013. Afghanistan is planning to implement IPV6 in its upcoming ICT infrastructure, which will connect almost every machine within the network to the Internet. Let's turn to the figures again: if in 2006 there were 300,000 internet users against the population of 27,089,593 that means that every ninetieth citizen was an Internet user, in 2010 - 780,000 against 32,738,376 citizens or every fifty sixths citizen is an Internet user (according to www.internetworldstats.com data). About 700,000 (or 1.5% of the population), as ITU statistics shows, had internet access by the end of 2010. So the situation is obviously getting better.


The level of the national Internet development can be estimated from the standpoint of the IP addresses quantity and domain names registered in the country. We'd like to remind you that domain name is a sequence of symbols, or an address, typed by users to apply to the site. Very often it consists of two or three domains. For example, com is the first level domain, afghanistan – the second and www is the third.


The first level domain AF is assigned to Afghanistan, that was registered at the end of 1990s and Abdul Ratzik from Kabul was responsible for it. We also have to take into consideration the fact that Internet usage in the country had been prohibited on pain of death that reveals him to be a Taliban representative. After the entrance of coalition forces into the country Abdul Ratzik disappeared but in 2002 IANA has received a letter in the name of him that had registered a domain, with a request to pass the right of possession to the Ministry of Communications and Information Technologies (MCIT).


Today the registration in AF domain zone is implemented by Afghan Network Information Center, subordinated to the MCIT. But the registration nowadays is weakly developed since due to some political reasons Afghan Internet has developed in other domains zones. Today the majority of sites that belong to the government institutions and some big companies are concentrated in a zone of the second level domain org.af and gov.af. Foreign users are not interested in registration. Today there are just a couple of the companies offering their help in registration of AF domain names. Moreover, a direct dialog with the MCIT doesn't seem convenient especially for non-residents.


Totally there are about 5202 IP addresses registered on the territory of Afghanistan. 3072 of them belong to the biggest Internet provider Neda. There are a lot of other smaller ones: 144 IP addresses can be found in the list of US and British embassies in Afghanistan, 768 - Segovia Company that serves NATO contingent in the region. The rest belong to the small providers such as O-stra (Kandahar) - 256 IP addresses, Tachyon 42, Bahador.net (Herat) – 320, Pelasco Kare Saypa – 256, IO Global Services (Kabul) – 256, Roshan (Morocco) – 64, Afgan Telecom (Armenia) – 16, Neda (in Russia) – 8, etc. That's just 8 providers, actually there are 17 ones. Probably the rest use foreign companies' IP addresses or register them outside the country. So, according to the statistics, per 1000 people there is less than one IP address, while in Russia, for instance, there are more than 177 IP addresses per 1000 people.


Now let us tell some words about the access speed, cost, and web surfing. The registration of country specific domains is largely controlled by monopolies, and prices vary widely from country to country. In Afghanistan Ministry of Communications has raised Telecom Development fund, which will be used to expand the telecom infrastructure to rural areas where the private sector is not willing to go. The telecom service providers are contributing 2.5% of their net profit to this fund. The cctld in Afghanistan is controlled by the Afg Nic and is open to the private sector to resell. The tariffs for foreigners and Afghans are different, which enables Afghans to buy and use the AF widely. Nearly in all developing countries and developed countries, phone calls are charged per one minute, and often are extremely expensive. When people in these countries use dial-up connections to reach the Internet, they must then pay access fees as well as these phone charges. Since the speed of their Internet connections is relatively slow, it takes longer to download email and web pages - which means it is more expensive, and fewer people can participate. Additionally, web pages (and email) are becoming increasingly graphic-heavy and "large" in terms of file size. For the United States and Europe, with steadily increasing bandwidth, this is not a problem. For other countries it means that, all other things remaining equal, it can actually become more expensive to use the Internet over time.

It's widely known that from the very beginning of the Internet despite the underlying and increasing diversity of its users the English language was predominating. Just over 50 percent of all Internet users are native English speakers. The dominance of English, and especially US content, makes it less useful to other countries. Additionally, non-English countries produce less local content making the Internet less relevant to their lives, and less as a tool of self-expression and local communication. And, without any English language knowledge, most people in Afghanistan cannot participate in e-commerce, since "English is, overwhelmingly, the language of e-commerce" and almost 94% of pages pointing to secure servers (sites capable of doing e-commerce) are in English. Afghanistan government has also felt the need to address this issue and has initiated a project for the UNICODE of official languages of the country, which will enable the development of the local content which will contribute to the usage of the ICT in the country.

Well, the use of e-commerce in Afghanistan is not common, but there are certain afghan owned online services, which provide facility to buy and sell afghan handicrafts. Comparing Afghanistan with the neighboring countries there is significant difference. Countries like Pakistan and India has well defined number of online services owned by the government, public and private sector. Ministry of Commerce and Communications of Afghanistan will start a joint project to establish the Electronic Certification Authority and develop the e-legislation and the Government portal project will be linked to this project in order to start the e-services. For example, without considerable infrastructure, access, training, and resources to develop and administer e-commerce websites, significant e-commerce is simply impossible.

Concerning the e-payment systems, Afghanistan doesn't have its own services, but citizens use the international payment systems, such as PayPal or WebMoney, Moneybokers. But the usage is not on an advanced level and definitely has to be improved. Concerning the online shopping it's not widely used in a country as well. Just a couple of sites, like http://www.BeOnlineSolutions.com, can provide such online services.

However the country is on the road to recovery and is making great progress in different areas including ICT sphere: on December 18, 2005, the new Telecom Law of Afghanistan was put in place. This law governs telecom only services. The MCIT has drafted an ICT Law that will address issues such as IP, digital signatures, e-commerce, e-government, IPR and cyber security. And though online services are not yet popular in Afghanistan due to the lack of electricity and the lack of local content, there are a number of websites that provide information about policies, regulations and development projects to the public and to the international community. Some good examples are the national website of the Office of the President (www.president.gov.af), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.mfa.gov.af), Afghanistan Reconstruction and Development Services (www.ards.gov.af), Afghanistan National Assembly (www.nationalassembly.af) and Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (www.mcit.gov.af). The government has put together a unified development strategy called the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) (www.ands.gov.af). It covers security, governance, rule of law, human rights, and economic and social development. The MCIT has developed a concept called e-Afghanistan, which focuses on the utilization of ICT to achieve the goals set in the ANDS. E-Afghanistan covers the development of e-government, national portals, e-commerce and ICT governance.


So we are hopeful that the development of ICT and other online services that has started recently will lead to the advancing of e-commerce in Afghanistan that will let it to participate more actively in the process of the global e-commerce.


(Written By CEO BeOnline Solutions Mr. Sayed Karim)


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