11/28/2012 04:33 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

Emerging Voices: Broadband Investment In Afghanistan

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Ten years ago, I traveled to Afghanistan on behalf of Cisco to determine how we could make investments in the future of the nation's workforce. As we landed, I saw the shell of a burned-out and rusted airplane on the tarmac. It was a vivid reminder that Afghanistan had been a nation at war for decades, and that the legacy of the conflicts the Afghan people have endured would linger for years to come.

After a decade of uncertainty, Afghanistan is entering a new phase of governance where a strong economic and social fabric will be critical to the nation's peaceful future. As Afghanistan's leaders consider how to best move the country's 30 million people forward, lessons learned from developing countries around the world show how adequately educating the population and training the workforce, efforts underpinned by a robust broadband infrastructure, can help bring the nation into the 21st century economy.

Afghanistan's early efforts to build its information and communications technology (ICT) sector focused on implementing the legal and regulatory reforms necessary for private telecommunications and Internet companies to invest in the country's infrastructure. The strategy is paying off. According to a recent United Nations ITU World Telecommunication Database report, the number of mobile phone subscriptions has skyrocketed from 25,000 in 2002 to 17.5 million today. USAID and Internews jointly reported that Afghanistan's telecoms sector now generates $139.6 million annually and has attracted more than $1.8 billion in investments from 2006 to 2012.

This progress is consistent with the positive economic effects of ICT deployment and the transformation of sectors such as education and health care in countries like India and Brazil.

Now, pockets of positive change can be seen throughout Afghanistan. For example, Roshan, the country's leading telecommunications company, is helping to bring the benefits of a robust broadband infrastructure to health care, education, and other sectors. Health is a crucial concern: In a nation recovering from 25 years of conflict, the health care system has been left in ruins. UN statistics estimate that one in 10 Afghan children dies before their fifth birthday, among the highest mortality rates for under-fives in the world. And, according to the World Health Organization, there are only two doctors for every 10,000 people in Afghanistan.

Recognizing this, Roshan has worked with partners such as Cisco to make a significant investment in tele-health solutions that allow international medical experts to reach patients across Afghanistan. A broadband connection and advanced telemedicine solutions help doctors at the French Medical Institute for Children in Kabul provide consultation on about 80 radiology cases per month to both the Aga Khan University Hospital, in Karachi, and the Bamyan Provincial Hospital.

Demand for further technology solutions has created the need for a skilled local ICT workforce. Greater connectivity requires a reliable pipeline of talent that can fuel the country's ICT employment needs. For instance, a report by USAID and Internews shows that Afghanistan's telecom industry has generated more than 100,000 direct and indirect jobs, but there are limited numbers of Afghans skilled to take these jobs. The public and private sectors in Afghanistan must work together to create an ICT-educated workforce.

Through ICT-based workforce programs, Afghan students are being trained in the skills they need for jobs that will not only provide income but also boost their country's development. One such program is Cisco's Networking Academy. After 10 years, Cisco and its public sector partners have reached more than 4,500 Afghan students -- 29 percent of them women -- through seven academies housed in universities around the country. A recent survey of students in Afghanistan who completed the networking curriculum showed that 85 percent had attained new or improved job opportunities as a result of their training.

The latest academy, set to open this fall at the American University of Afghanistan, will be staffed by instructors who were originally trained by Kabul University, rather than by instructors coming from outside the country. This is an example of how the right programs can seed future workforce needs.

Ten years after I first touched down in Afghanistan, there is much to be done in the nation and for its people. Progress is encouraging, but the public and private sectors need to continue working together on broadband policy to further the kind of benefits that it can bring in education, health care, and employment. The fiber-optic "ring" known as the OFC, which will connect the country's major cities along with spurs heading off to neighboring nations, must be completed if the country is to meet the government's goal of increasing Internet connectivity from 3 percent of the population to even 10 percent by 2016.

Continued public and private sector partnership with multilateral and bilateral organizations to support policies that encourage the proliferation of broadband access is essential if Afghanistan is to see the kind of social and economic progress its people deserve.

This post originally appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations blog.