Iraq’s long-awaited fourth mobile licence may be upgraded to a fourth-generation (4G) licence instead of the proposed third-generation.

“The 4G bandwidth is available, but it is up to the ministry to decide,” says Ahmed Alomary, a commissioner at the Communications & Media Commission (CMC) the regulatory body in the country.

Meetings between Iraq’s Communications Ministry and CMC are due to begin in two weeks, but the strained relationship between the two may hinder progress.

Communications Minister Farook Abdulqadir Abdulrahman says the licence will be awarded by the end of the first quarter of 2011. It will be a joint venture between government-owned Information Technology & Post Company (ITPC) and a private operator.

Alomary says: “We have not approved the fourth licence yet as the ministry has not submitted a full case study to us. We will give them the frequencies only after they provide all the information.”

The fourth licence has been a source of struggle between the ministry and the CMC. The lack of a ratified telecommunications law has delayed and confused the process. It was the cabinet that decided to provide the frequencies, which has undermined the CMC’s position.

The ITPC plans to take a 35 per cent share in the new mobile operator. It is demanding the first two-years’ worth of investment upfront as one lump-sum. Coupled with the ongoing political stalemate in Iraq, this has detracted potential investors, a point that ITPC director general Kassim al-Hassani denies. He says that the ministry requires the payment as insurance.

So far around 15 companies have shown an interest in including Turkey’s Turkcell, Qatar’s Qtel, South Korea’s SKTC, US-based Verizon, South Africa’s MTN, UK-based Vodafone and France Telecom.

Iraq’s mobile market is one of the most competitive and fastest-growing in the Middle East. Penetration levels are expected to reach 76 per cent by the end of the year and will break the 100 per cent barrier by 2015.

Current operators Zain, Asiacell and Korek Telecoms offer 2G capabilities only.

This year around $350m has been invested in Iraq’s telecoms industry. The ministry plans to turn the country into telecommunications hub connecting Europe to Asia by 2012.