Part III of my ‘Freewheeling Expat’s Guide to Kabul’ series.
Advice to help Kabul expat newcomers stave off email and social media withdrawal:
An internet connection for your house.
I generally discourage people from trying to get a “house” connection. They’re not worth the cost. A satellite or DSL connection from one of the dozen or so private ICT firms in Kabul will run you between $800 and several thousand dollars per month. Installation fees can be as high as $2,000. Ridiculous, but true. And even the most expensive Kabul connections (my office had one that cost $5,000 per month at one point!) are too slow to play streaming videos or upload/download photos and audio files quickly. All of them experience frequent outages. That’s just the way it is.
Afghan Telecom, the state-owned internet provider, offers cheaper DSL connections ranging in price from around $120 per month to a few hundred dollars per month, but Afghan Telecom’s staff don’t always know what they are and aren’t allowed to do. I’ve heard stories of expats being turned down for service by confused Afghan Telecom employees. Also, Afghan Telecom uses a filtering system that blocks sites flagged as containing objectionable content; you won’t be able to browse for swimsuits or research breast cancer on an state-owned connection.
Advice: Avoid Rana Telecom. Ask around for the best deal. Consult other expats before you sign a contract. Play hardball with your ISP if you’re being overcharged or billed for a service you didn’t use. If opting for Afghan Telecom, ask an Afghan friend or colleague to help you sort out the paperwork and installation process.
This is your best bet. When I moved into my second house in Kabul, I needed an internet connection but couldn’t afford to shell out hundreds of dollars every month for one. So, I asked around and a colleague suggested I get a data card from Afghan Telecom. For me, this was the perfect solution. Now, I pay 2,000 afs per month (about $60) for a slow but mostly reliable connection via a USB modem that I purchased at the Afghan Telecom central office for $170. I used a CD to install the dial-up program on my laptop, and now I have (slow) internet service almost everywhere in the country. The device is small and pack it in my laptop bag. The best part? As long as my laptop is charged, I can get online, even if the power is out in my section of the city (as it frequently is). Roshan, AWCC and Etisalat also offer data card plans.
Advice: Avail of this option. The only major downside is having to buy the recharge cards every month. Afghan Telecom only has three offices in Kabul, so, taking traffic into account, you’ll need to block off an hour or two every month for getting to and from the vendor.
Mobile phones and iPads.
You’ll need a frequency 900 compatible GSM phone for Afghanistan. You can buy a new, unlocked Android phone in Dubai International Airport for as little as $200 –less than half the price you’ll pay in Kabul. If you decide to bring a phone from the US, you’ll need to get it unlocked in Kabul. Unlocking costs around $20 for most smart phones and around $35 for Blackberries, Androids and iPhones.
First generation iPads can be unlocked for $50 to $100. Don’t bring an iPad 2 with you to Afghanistan.
Advice: The most skilled phone “unlockers” in Kabul are found at Tamim Mobile in the Gulbahar Centre mall, City Centre and at the mobile phone store at the entrance to Chicken Street. Always ask for the price before you hand over your device.
Data service for your phone.
All of Afghanistan’s telecoms offer data service at this point. I pay 1,000 afs per month (about $25) for unlimited use through AWCC. The service is slow, but I can use Twitter, Facebook and Gmail without too much difficulty most days.
Advice: To sign up, you’ll need to bring a passport style photo and a copy of your passport or other official photo I.D. (such as an ISAF card or UN I.D.) to the mobile phone store in order to register for a SIM card. (If you don’t sign up with all the requisite identification, your service will be cut after 30 days. This is to discourage the use of SIM cards in IED detonators. No joke.) After your SIM card is activated, you can use a data recharge scratch card to activate your mobile web service. This usually takes 24 hours from the time you register. To keep your account charged, make sure your account is recharged to at least 1,000 afs every 30 days. Mark “recharge day” on your calendar.