Afghanistan gets some 150,000 new cell phone subscribers each month and there is "no end in sight" to expansion in the sector, the country's communications minister said Tuesday.
Speaking after the launch of the nation's fourth cell phone service provider, Amirzai Sangin predicted the telecommunication and information technology sector would "be the engine of growth for Afghanistan."
Afghanistan's economy is growing quickly, due mostly to the massive infusion of foreign aid since the downfall of the Taliban in 2001. But the country's living standards are among the lowest in the world and it faces mounting security problems likely to deter many investors.
Its economy is predominantly rural and trade and industry are badly hampered by crumbling roads and chronic electricity shortages. Not including the illicit trade in opium, the nation's few exports include dried fruit and carpets.
But like in other developing nations, cell phone service providers have been doing brisk business, bringing communication to poor villagers who until four years rarely, if ever, used a telephone.
"In Afghanistan, the majority of our people will be connected through mobile phones," Sangin told The Associated Press. "Since there is no home phones, today everybody has a mobile phone. We have gone straight into the age of personal communication."
Call charges are currently around 10 U.S. cents a minutes, with the cheapest top-up cards on sale for the equivalent of US$1. Coverage is generally available in all of the country's 34 provinces.
Sangin said the telecommunications and IT sector employed some 50,000 people and was crucial to opening opportunities for trade between districts as well as internationally.
Cell phone penetration rate currently stood at 12 percent in the country of around 25 millon people, but there "was no end in sight" to its growth, he said.
Emirates Telecommunication Corp, or Etisalat, became the fourth service provider on Tuesday to compete in the Afghan market. The United Arab Emirates company said it had invested $300 million dollars to set up.
Salem Al Kendi, Etisalat's Afghan CEO, predicted brisk growth in Afghanistan and said the company hoped to move into other countries in the region.
"Afghanistan remains the gateway to central Asia," he said. "Etisalat looks forward to helping Afghanistan become a telecommunications hub."