Defense seeks right mix for telecommunications in Iraq

Defense Department officials on Friday outlined plans for reconstruction of Iraq's telecommunications infrastructure with the goal of introducing competition into the market there. The plan includes the construction of a cellular telephone system to be in operation by late this year.

Linton Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense for networks and information integration, gave a press briefing Friday at the Pentagon after a visit to Iraq two weeks ago.

Wells discussed last week's bidders' conference in Amman, Jordan, for a new wireless communication public offering. Over 400 bidders attended, and bids are due Aug. 14. Bidders for the three regional licenses countrywide need to consider how to ensure their technology can communicate with all others in use there. Bidders must not be majority state-owned companies, but rather consortia of companies that demonstrate competition.

There are about 320 cell-phone towers nationwide that may be used by contractors, he said. Contracts will be for 24 months, with the work financed by contractors who then must recover those costs through fees. It should not be assumed that the United States will provide security, he said.

Wells said the military recognizes that "significant additional funds" will be needed to rebuild Iraqi civil infrastructure, envisioned over the next 12 to 18 months. Other needs are for local and national 911 first-responder capabilities, and a regulatory framework to determine how licenses are awarded and spectrum is allocated.

Wells said there are three tiers to the Iraq telecom systems: military, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)-which has two parts, internal communications and outreach to Iraqi counterparts-and third, reconstruction of the country's telecommunication infrastructure. The military still is largely operating off the tactical communications that it brought with it to fight the war, he said.

The internal communications of the CPA are "insufficient but improving," he said. These are supported by ongoing contracts such as Northrop Grumman's provision of satellite Internet terminals, and MCI's provision of the Baghdad cellular network. Another contract, held by Artel, maintains the Iraqi Forum, where various nongovernmental organizations and Iraqi groups meet. In addition, a recent contract for $50 million with the Defense Information Systems Agency will add to the CPA's capabilities, Wells said.

It remains to be seen if MCI will be allowed to bid on future contracts, he said.

In the future, the Army will become the executive agency for CPA activities, including the transition of telecommunications, he said. The goal of the telecom transition is to return Iraq to prewar capabilities with the introduction of new advanced technologies.

Right now, there is limited telephone service in most major cities, but Baghdad has minimal services due to damage, which is problematic for the whole country as most inter-city switching goes through Baghdad. The country's 3,000 kilometers of mostly fiber-optic lines connecting the cities is being repaired but continues to be the target of sabotage, he said. Wells highlighted a U.S. Agency for International Development contract with Bechtel Corp. to do emergency repairs of the telecom infrastructure. Bechtel also is establishing a land-mobile radio service at Baghdad International Airport, he said.

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