Baghdad is divided on plans to issue a fourth mobile phone operating licence, says the chief executive of the country’s second biggest operator.

Speaking to delegates at the Telecommunications and Media Convergence Conference in Amman on 7 June, Asiacell chief executive officer Diar Ahmed said that officials in the Iraq’s Communications Ministry were divided over the plan to issue a new licence.

“There is no harmony inside the government regarding the fourth licence,” he said. “The regulator is opposed because he doesn’t think it is the right time for a licence, although he thinks a move to 3G (third generation) might be right, but he has to think of the incumbents. But other parts of the government want a licence granted without any bidding process and without a licence fee to the Communications Ministry.”

Ahmed said that Asiacell was against the plan. “The three incumbents have gone through a fair bidding process and paid $1.25bn each for a licence.”

Ahmed also defended his firm against criticisms over the quality of its services, saying that there were many factors affecting telephone service in Iraq that were beyond any operator’s control. “There are thousands of reasons for the bad services that are beyond the capability of the telco,” he said.

“In terms of network operations, Iraq has the highest operating costs in the world for mobile. First, there is no electricity, so all the operators have thousands of generators. Asiacell has more than 6,000 generators. Then there is the cost of security. We have sites with 12 guards.  We have more than 6,000 guards to protrect our sites. Third, we don’t have a fibreoptic backbone. All of the backbone is microwave links. The terms of our licences allow for only about 10 per cent of the capacity needed in terms of microwave towers. So there is no backbone. This infrastructure was the responsibility of the government, but they have not provided it. So there is insufficient microwave frequency.”

Ahmed said that the ongoing war against the insurgency was also causing massive service disruption. “There is a very high level of interference on our frequency,” he said. “All GSM frequencies are contaminated by external frequencies for network jammers deployed everywhere in Iraq except the north. The jammers have been employed by the US military to stop bomb detonation through mobile phones. These network jammers, which have increased massively since 2007, have greatly disrupted our services. But there is no way out because these jammers have proven their value by reducing the numbers of bombs.”