About 150,000 people subscribe to cell phone service each month in Afghanistan and there's "no end in sight" to the growth, 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 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.
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. "... We have gone straight into the age of personal communication."
Calling rates are currently about 10 cents a minute, with the cheapest phone cards on sale for the equivalent of $1. Coverage is generally available in all the country's 34 provinces.
Sangin said the country's telecommunications and IT sector employed about 50,000 people and was crucial to opening opportunities for trade between districts as well as other countries.
So far, 12 percent of Afghanistan's 25 million people have cell phones.
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 service.
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.