RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Among Iraq's other problems, add talking on a cell phone. Cell phone networks only arrived after the 2003 invasion. That was good. The problem is many of the systems were incompatible.
Last summer, the Iraqi government approved a multibillion-dollar cell-phone deal, but rather than improving the phone reception, it's only gotten worse. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Baghdad.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: It's not just flies and searing heat that are grating on Iraqi nerves this summer.
(Soundbite of telephone recording)
Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)
NELSON: This message in Arabic is also annoying some 9 million Iraqis who use cell phones in their country.
(Soundbite of telephone recording)
Unidentified Woman: Sorry, you cannot make this call now. Please try again later.
NELSON: The automated cell-phone message, repeated in English, shows what Iraqi callers have to go through these days just to get through. Usually, they have to redial the number two or three times to make a call. When they do finally reach the person they are calling, the conversation often sounds like this.
(Soundbite of buzzing)
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)
NELSON: After several frustrated hellos in Arabic, the caller tells his friend he'll text-message him instead. That's if he's lucky and able to get a signal at all. And it's not as if he can turn to a land line as a back-up. War and sanctions have pretty much killed any land-line service.
Who is to blame for the shoddy service depends on who you ask, but what everyone agrees on is that cell-phone service has deteriorated since the Iraqi government sold the right to operate wireless phone services last August. That $3.5 billion deal, selling 15-year licenses to two Kuwaiti companies and another Iraq-based one, was heralded as a major milestone toward reconstructing Iraq's infrastructure.
The distinction was short-lived, especially for Zain(ph). The Kuwaiti firm is now Iraq's biggest cell-phone company.
Mr. FARID AHMED(ph): (Speaking foreign language)
NELSON: Zain worker Farid Ahmed, who is 29, says the company inherited a slew of headaches when it took over several million subscribers from an Egyptian company that lost the bid. Those headaches included shoddy or missing equipment and a shortage of qualified engineers. Plus, the deteriorating security at the time kept repair crews from adequately maintaining cell-phone towers.
Ahmed says at least one engineer was kidnapped and killed, while another one was shot. He added that sectarian violence defined where the crews could work. For example, Sunni engineers could only go to Sunni neighborhoods, while Shiite engineers could only go to Shiite neighborhoods.
Zain company officials refused to comment on tape about the problems, but some say privately that the Iraqi government is to blame. They claim it refused to give Zain the frequencies that had been used by the Egyptian company. They say as a result, Zain had to add millions of new subscribers to its existing network, which it simply couldn't handle.
Dari Nakram(ph), spokeswoman for the Communication and Media Commission in Iraq, which is the regulatory body for cell-phone service here, says Zain officials have asked for time to try and work out the kinks.
Ms. DARI NAKRAM (Communication and Media Commission, Iraq): They are obliged to improve themselves and their cadres and their crews. We've given them time, but the time is running, and at the end there will be, you know, legal steps to be taken against them.
NELSON: She adds the commission will give them to the end of this year. That doesn't sit well with Zain subscriber Hussam Abbas Aydin(ph).
Mr. HUSSAM ABBAS AYDIN: (Speaking foreign language)
NELSON: The 21-year-old college student says there is no excuse for the government to make out with a lucrative contract while Iraqis are left with shoddy cell-phone service. But given that Iraqis are already living without decent electricity or basic services, he's not hopeful that the government can do anything to improve cell-phone service anytime soon. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Baghdad.
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