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Operators condemn Iraq's fourth mobile operator plans

Government involvement criticised amid calls for licence auction

Operators condemn Iraq's fourth mobile operator plans
The country will soon be in "election mode" and Allawi warns that the government will have to work fast if it is to finally pass the communications law.

LONDON: Iraq's plan to launch a fourth government-backed national mobile operator was criticised by the country's mobile networks on Tuesday, despite assurances by Iraq's former minister of communications that it would be subject to the same constraints as the country's existing telecom providers.

Iraqi MP and former minister of communications, Mohammed Tawfik Allawi, who gave the opening address at Tuesday's Iraq Telecoms conference in London in the absence of the current minister of communications, said the plans for the fourth operator were contained in the country's draft telecommunications law.

"The ministry is now proposing to be the fourth operator," Allawi confirmed to delegates. "According to the communications law, the basis of the contract such as the licence fees, revenue sharing with the CMC (the Communications and Media Commission, Iraq's telecom regulator) must be the same as with other mobile operators and there will be no preferential status.

"Also, charges by ministerial companies to the state operator cannot be less than charges to other operators. This is to avoid a situation where the state operator has an unfair advantage, which would lead to a state monopoly," he added.

Despite Allawi's attempts to reassure Iraq's telecom providers that a government-backed operator would not have an unfair advantage and his assertion that the suggestions of Iraq's mobile networks were considered when the law was drafted, the issue of the fourth operator led to a vigorous exchange of views at the conference.

Loay Almalaieka, CEO of Itisaluna, one of Iraq's regional operators, said it was a "major concern" that the Ministry of Communications would effectively be licencing the new operator because it already owns the Iraq Telecommunications and Post Company (ITPC), which serves existing mobile operators through its fixed infrastructure.

The general manager of operator Kalimat, Saman Shalil, said that "no matter what the CMC does, the Ministry has the infrastructure and the backing, and paying the licence fee would move money from one pocket to another. If there is a fourth licence, let there be a bidding process".

Allawi said that his advice to the Ministry of Communications was to give the majority of the shares to a private company that will be able to take full management control of the operator, "in order that we avoid falling into the same situation as the Nigerian state operator Nitel, where it has to be privatised after making huge losses".

And he said that as the country will soon be in "election mode" he warned that the government will have to work fast if it is to finally pass the communications law before the country's elections take place.

"Last year I told [conference delegates] that we were in the final stages of drafting the communications law. To date, the law has not passed, due to delays from both the parliament and the ministry of justice. We are now left with one final chance to pass the law in December this year, otherwise we will have to wait until after the coming general election," he said.

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