KABUL, Afghanistan — Students at public universities in Afghanistan are surfing the Internet, but they’re doing it with Afghan government-controls in place.
Afghanistan’s Ministry of Higher Education blocks sites that it deems as potential security or ethical risks, including military websites, sites with details of certain chemicals, and pornographic sites, said Tariq Meeran, project manager for the Afghanistan Research and Education Network, which includes the Internet initiative.
“We know what is coming and going through the Internet,” he said. If students “can do anything, it’s no good,” he added.
Sites that could be risky can still be accessed with special arrangements to ensure the surfing is for educational purposes, Meeran said.
NATO’s Consultation, Command and Control Agency and its contractors have been rolling out the university Internet service over the last few years using $12.5 million from NATO and $3 million from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
U.S. and Afghan officials say the information technology curricula at Kabul is important because the country’s Ministry of Defense and intelligence agency will need personnel to operate the simple networking systems that the allies are putting in place for them.
The country’s 18 public universities are gradually being connected by fiber optic cable to a subsurface ring of fiber spanning much of Afghanistan under a project called Silk-Afghanistan.
The name refers to the project’s heritage in a previous NATO initiative called the Virtual Silk Highway project. NATO chose the name as a takeoff on the ancient trade route that once spanned the region.
The underground fiber ring will connect university users to the broader Internet. So far, 10 of the 18 universities have been hooked up. Those that don’t yet have the fiber link are connected to the Internet via satellite dishes on their roofs.
Afghan officials are anxious to go terrestrial because they say it is much cheaper. One megabit of data flows each second over Kabul University’s satellite dish at a cost of $2,000 per month compared to $900 for the fiber, said Salim Saay, director of information technology at Kabul University and an assistant professor.
Kabul University switched to fiber May 24 after attempting the switch May 1. Technicians had to trouble shoot some bugs, Saay said.
Meeran and Saay gave two reporters a tour of the university and its network facilities. The campus is tucked off a busy main road, behind the Higher Education Ministry. Male and female students wearing scarves strolled the walkways under the shade of towering pines.
Inside one of the halls, reporters were shown a closet-sized room with computers that serve as the network operations center. In a nearby room, two Afghan information technologists – one a recent graduate of the university – monitored displays showing the network’s performance.
Saay said the Internet connectivity is important, but it is just one issue the country must solve. There aren’t enough slots for all the students who would like to the attend the free curricula. “The demand is high, but the capacity is low. The universities cannot accommodate them all,” he said.