"This is Dubai 20 years ago" is the tenet that tends to welcome all first-time visitors to Erbil — the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan and the home of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Erbil, or Hewler to the local population, is also the base of Regional Telecom (RT), a group providing communications services which has readied Iraq's first 4G LTE network under their FastLink brand. The new service is now live, and various personal and enterprise packages are going to market in the coming weeks.
Many are using grandiose superlatives to describe the speed of LTE, but this "lightning-fast" network is striking for the first time in not only Iraq but in all of the surrounding countries. Not only that, the nation as a whole is currently running on Edge (or 2.5G), so the launch completely bypasses the 3G network many of us have become accustomed to over the past half a decade or so.
The 3G licence had been granted in 2006 but the holder could not implement the network — for reasons unknown.
Adjacent to RT's new office compound, pockets of open spaces remain scorched from Saddam Hussain's brutal al-Anfal Campaign, known to many simply as the Kurdish Genocide. But look closer and you may catch a glimpse of Dubai contractor Emaar's flags flapping away in the baking hairdryer wind.
"Unfortunately for Kurdistan, we're still seen by many as an unstable country," said Kawa Junad, RT's CEO. "Only two years ago, bigger companies began understanding the stability of Kurdistan compared with other parts of Iraq, and that was the time we had the opportunity to bring in Alcatel-Lucent.
"This wasn't only because of their services and equipment, but the eagerness to partner with us and guide us through the project."
RT had previously encountered problems with Chinese vendors, and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 made it difficult for many multinationals to enter the market. "All my respect to Huawei and ZTE, but the quality was never there," Junad admitted.
The last terrorist attack was over seven years ago now, and the economy has since flourished. But the arrival of the mega malls and shiny new apartments are not the hottest prospects at this moment.
Long-term evolution — immediate benefits
LTE, or long-term evolution, could not be more aptly named for Kurdistan. The super-fast connection has been flagged as the technology to significantly boost Web connectivity for both home and office use. The new network also brings other advantages. "The new LTE network will lead to develop the region as a whole, because there are other services it will provide," vowed Junad.
"For example, we've already had discussions with the KRG for an e-government platform, there will be an e-learning program with the Ministry of Education, and we're even talking to the Ministry of Interior, which is interested in linking its surveillance cameras, as well as a range of other enterprises."
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