It seems like yesterday when I first heard the word "Internet." But if I am not mistaken, it was around 1999 when the word was introduced to Iraq, where I lived.
Connecting computer terminals all over the world using cables and being able to exchange information -- was this even possible? Yes, I was told, it was possible. The rest of the world was doing it when the Iraqi people were still living in the "technology dark ages" and the most advanced communication technology they were allowed to possess was a landline telephone.
Oh, I thought, that must be the reason why I have this useless device called a "fax modem" installed in my 233-MHz Pentium 1 machine. Of course, in order to be connected one had to have an Internet subscription. Well, good luck with that -- I was told that the government would not allow any Internet services to be used at the private level.
Then, just as I was forgetting about the idea, I heard on the news that the Iraqi government had started providing limited email subscription services to the public through the Ministry of Culture and Media. Well, it was better than nothing.
I went with my dad to the above-mentioned ministry and at the reception desk we asked for directions to the Internet Department. There, they explained to us all the instructions and limitations on using our account, such as: Each household was allowed one account; the contents of messages should not contain any political discussions opposing the government; there was a proxy on the email; no adult content was allowed in the email, etc. We got a couple of numbers to dial and we created a username and password and set up Microsoft Outlook to get connected.
If the limitations on using the account were not enough to frustrate us, trying to get connected to send simple one-line messages was: Out of, say, 100 attempts you would be considered lucky to have one succeed.
Fast forward to 2001, when I heard that an Internet center operated by the government had just opened to the public. I met my friends and we rushed to that center to explore the magic of the Internet for the first time in our lives.
The center had a ticket booth where you had to pay in advance for the use of no more than one hour of service on two floors of computers. Just like email, the Internet use was restricted and limited. Indeed, there were proxies and firewalls and "national guards" for every bit of data sent or received.
Still, these kinds of centers started spreading in Baghdad. Gradually, sound was allowed (previously, the computers had no sound cards), but you had to bring your own headphones to hear anything. And the speed was always as slow as a turtle.
A year later, the government decided to provide the service to homes with conditions pretty much similar to those of the email service they provided two years earlier. This time, people were introduced to the concept of bandwidth and usually would subscribe to a 56-kbit/s downlink and 32-kbit/s uplink.
There was an expensive commercial option that required the installation of a 2.4-Gbit/s wireless Internet antenna on top of your building, which was aligned with one of the governmentís antennas for a maximum of 1-Mbit/s upload, 2-Mbit/s download.
Shortly after the arrival of US troops in Baghdad in April 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, dial-up Internet access was offered with no proxy, for free. People were going crazy on it. But not me, since my landline provider was attacked during the war, like almost all other operators in Baghdad, and still to this day is not working.
The free numbers did not last for a long time anyway. And that is when some people started buying private Internet systems and opening Internet cafes that later on developed into wireless home subscriptions. Those subscriptions have no proxies and therefore no restrictions on content.
Most of these systems use ISPs in Europe via satellite. System owners need antenna, dish, modem, router, and switch to stay connected. Most importantly, they need to lease connectivity from companies in Europe with agents in Iraq, such as Bentley-Walker and iDirect.
These agent companies use satellites from providers like Eutilsat to offer dedicated and shared bandwidth within the region. Speeds range from 64 kbit/s to 2,048 kbit/s downlink and 64 kbit/s to 1,024 kbit/s uplink. Monthly fees range from $170 to over $10,000, depending on the type of connection. Systems usually achieve 10 percent to 50 percent of the contracted speed, and subscribers pay for downtime.
Imagine paying over $10,000 for a 1-Mbit/s downlink!
One more thing: After Iraqis enjoyed the freedom of using the Internet with no blocking of contents or services, the government has decided to license all the private ISPs within the locality of Iraq and proxy the data going through their Internet systems.
So basically we are back to 2001!
Table 1: Internet Growth and Population: Iraq
|| % Population
|| Usage Source
— Mustafa Al-Niama is a native of Baghdad, Iraq, who presently lives in the Boston metro area. His interests include R&D on emerging technologies, especially networks and network security