ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Like many young people hungry for change in the Middle East, 21-year-old student Meran Mubarak is embracing social media as fast as telecommunications advances allow in his Iraqi Kurdistan homeland.
He is lucky to live in Iraq’s Kurdish zone, the prosperous northern territory whose semi-autonomous status and relative stability in the war-battered nation has allowed 3G mobile technology and faster Internet services to flourish far beyond what most Iraqis can expect.
“I am connected to Facebook and Twitter almost 24/7,” said Mubarak, using the latest version of Apple’s iPhone on the network of local provider Korek Telecom.
While the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein opened up the mobile phone industry and Internet access in Iraq, communication lines outside the Kurdish zone are still patchy.
But the Kurdish region was freed from Saddam’s grip over a decade before 2003, and manages its own telecoms sector.
It has enjoyed virtual independence under Western protection since the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, attracting foreign investors as a relatively safe haven compared to the rest of Iraq, where gun and bomb attacks and assassinations occur daily.
The Kurdish telecoms industry, along with other investment sectors including oil, has boomed and avoided problems like military jamming as it has largely been spared the sectarian violence and insurgency that has afflicted the rest of Iraq.
Outside Kurdistan, poor data services and jamming of mobile phone frequencies by the military to prevent insurgents from detonating bombs remain a common complaint among Iraqis.
“The situation of telecommunications is very good in Kurdistan,” said Hameed Akrawi, vice president of Korek Telecom, a mobile phone firm established in Arbil in 2001.
“We have more experience than the rest of Iraq, because we had freedom (earlier).”
In the Iraqi Kurdish city of Arbil, which boasts smart shopping malls and Western-style coffee shops, citizens and visitors are able to use Mobitel’s 3G mobile phones and connect to the Internet using Wi-Fi.
Mobile phones were first introduced to the Kurdish region in 1999 when AsiaCell was established as the first phone company in Sulaimaniya. It has a customer base of 8.5 million users throughout Iraq.
Korek, owned by a nephew of Kurdistan president Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), was established in 2001 in the region and has 3 million customers, while Kuwait’s Zain started operations in the zone last October.
All three firms secured $1.25 billion licenses each to operate in Iraq in 2007.
However, as in the rest of Iraq, companies operating in the Kurdish region also complain about a monopoly over fiber optic cables.
Allai Newroz Telecom, which introduced a fiber optic network to the Kurdish area in 2009, has a four-year renewable contract with the Kurdistan Regional Government and provides services in Arbil, Sulaimaniya and Dahuk.
Its network has become so overloaded that each separate neighborhood coverage hub, catering in theory for 1,500 customers was often crowded with around 6,000 users, said Fateh Esmael, public relations director for Allai Newroz Telecom.
Telecoms companies say a lack of cooperation between Iraq’s telecoms regulator, the Communications and Media Commission (CMC) and the Kurdish authorities is also hampering their work.
“The lack of fast broadband Internet has hindered Iraq’s economic progress,” said Diar Ahmed, chief executive of AsiaCell.
“CMC has no say here (in Kurdistan) ... There is chaos in the telecoms field in Iraq,” he added.
But even though Internet download times are much faster in the Kurdish zone than in the rest of Iraq, they are still not speedy enough for tech-hungry young people like Mubarak.
“The Internet doesn’t download fast enough. But I can still open e-mails and use Facebook,” the university student said.
Editing by Serena Chaudhry and Pascal Fletcher/Elizabeth Fullerton