A ceremony to launch the second phase of the SILK-Afghanistan programme, which provides high-speed internet access to Afghan universities and some governmental institutions, took place on 29 May. The signature of a contract between Afghan Telecom and NATO signals a shift from the use of satellites towards fibre-optic communications. This is a more sustainable solution going forward and will help prepare the way for an eventual handover of the network to a European Union funding mechanism in the future.
Virtual signature ceremony
“This ceremony marks an important step in the short history of the SILK-Afghanistan programme,” said Jamie Shea, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for NATO’s Emerging Security Challenges Division, who moderated the virtual signature ceremony which was held jointly at the Ministry of Higher Education in Kabul and at NATO Headquarters in Brussels.
“We are undertaking a major step towards improved sustainability of NATO’s investment so far by turning the academic network in Afghanistan, which up to now has been dominated by very expensive satellite links into a network predominantly based on fibre optics,” explained Dr Shea.
Professor Obaidullah Obaid, the Afghan Minister for Higher Education, presided over the ceremony in Kabul, where NATO was represented by its Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan Ambassador Maurits R. Jochems. Expressing his thanks for the SILK programme’s support for the development of the IT systems of Afghan educational institutions, the minister underlined the contribution that the project is making to his country’s education system as well as its economic and social development.
Dr Obaid’s remarks were echoed at the Brussels end by the Ambassador of Afghanistan to Belgium, Homayoun Tandar, who said the SILK programme shows the achievements made in Afghanistan over the past decade and also offers hope for the future. “Today, more than two million Afghans have internet access and over 500,000 Afghans use Facebook,” he added.
Demonstrating the virtual community that the programme has helped to create, the ceremony was witnessed online by nine universities from across the country, making use of their videoconferencing capabilities.
While the ceremony was virtual, the documents were very real. They were signed in Kabul by the Chief Executive Officer of Afghan Telecom (AFTEL) Gul Ahmad Rastman, and in Brussels by the NATO Financial Controller Stéphane Chagnot, and Head of Procurement Javier Carrasco Pena. The contract signature was formally witnessed by the Afghan Minister for Higher Education and the Deputy Minister of Communications and IT Baryalai Hassam.
Broadband for Afghanistan
The SILK-Afghanistan programme – named after the Great Silk Road trading route linking Asia and Europe – is mainly funded by the NATO Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme and the US State Department with further financing provided by the European Commission. The Afghan government covers the costs of domestic traffic and the investment in fibre links from AFTEL’s points of presence in the cities to the server rooms of universities.
Launched in Kabul in 2006, the programme has since been expanded to the provinces and currently provides broadband internet connectivity to 18 Afghan universities across the country and a few governmental institutions in Kabul. A further four universities are due to be hooked up to the network this summer. In addition to providing connectivity, the programme funds the building of IT infrastructure and trains IT staff at Afghan universities.
The signature of the contract worth EUR 750,000 with Afghan Telecom will provide for fibre-optic communications for four sites in the capital Kabul and 13 sites in the provinces. A further five sites will continue to use the more costly option of satellite technology, though two of these are due to move towards fibre optics by 2014/2015.
The shift away from satellites towards fibre optics will not only provide cheaper and more sustainable internet provision, it is also one of the requirements that would have to be met for the network to be transferred for continued funding to a network managed by the European Union.
NATO is also currently working with the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education to set up a “national research and education networking association” (which will be known as AfgREN). The existence of such an association is another requirement for the transfer to EU funding further down the line.