Iraq’s Ministry of Telecommunications yesterday announced the winners of the country’s three post-war commercial mobile licences, the country’s first major international investment tender since the conflict began. The awards were greeted with widespread approval for granting local companies a large role in rebuilding the country’s shattered communications network. All three winning consortia feature Iraqi businessmen and Arab firms, a significant development given the rising fears that the US-led administration would favour its own companies in the distribution of contracts in Iraq. It is widely believed that none of the six national US carriers – Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless, Sprint PCS, Nextel Communications and T-Mobile – bid for the contracts, apparently due to the short two-year tenure of the concessions. Additionally, Iraqi Communications Minister Haidar al-Ebadi said that the networks would use GSM technology, rather than the US-favoured CDMA standard.
The licences have split the country into three regions: Kuwaiti firm Watanyia Telecom is part of the consortium that won the concession for northern Iraq, in partnership with Kurdish telco Asia Cell; another Kuwaiti telco, Mobile Telecommunications Corporation (MTC), is a member of the consortium to launch in the southern region, in tandem with Iraqi company Dijla Telecommunications Corporation (DTC); and Egypt’s Orascom Telecommunications leads the consortium that has landed the key Baghdad and central Iraq network. The Ministry contentiously excluded a number of major telcos by stipulating that no bidding company could be more than 10% government controlled. The ceiling ruled out bids from a number of regional Arab carriers, including Kuwait’s MTC-Vodafone, Etisalat of the UAE and Bahrain’s Batelco. Batelco had spent USD5 million on the rollout of wireless services in the capital Baghdad in July, but was forced to close the network under pressure from US officials within days of launch. European mobile players such as Orange and T-Mobile, based in anti-invasion France and Germany respectively, were also ineligible, whilst Iraqi state telco ITPC was excluded from bidding, even though the successful bidders will be using the 350 towers that it has erected.
The Ministry’s announcement was originally due on 5 September, before being pushed back to 12 September, though the reason for the delays are unclear. The concessions are considered potentially lucrative given that there was no widespread commercial wireless services available under Saddam Hussein’s regime, with analysts predicting that the market will be worth USD6 billion by 2008. The concessions come with strict rollout stipulations and winners must have services available commercially within two months.