Another side to the no-bid contracts debate

We had it, and we threw it away.

One of the most frustrating things about the “reconstruction” of Iraq is the problems the Iraqi people are having getting basic services and utilities. I mean, it must be a little difficult to fully appreciate your new-found freedom when you don’t have electricity, running water, or telephone service.

Take the mobile phone network. The sensible solution would have been to pick the most able and cost-effective operator and let them get on with it. But instead, the decision was taken to go through a full competitive tendering process, which takes an inordinate amount of time. One day, however, people suddenly found their mobiles working; a network had decided, to immense acclaim, to ignore the process and, indeed, get on with it. They were swiftly shut down, encapsulating just why things have been moving so slowly in Iraq: beauraucracy ahead of common sense.

And what would happen if the State Department said, “This is an emergency situation. We have 24 hours to select the cell phone provider that can get up and running the quickest and most reliably.”? And what if they then picked a company that had some sort of connection to someone somewhere in the government? Especially a Republican or a member of the administration? Cries of “War profiteering!” and “Invading for Dollars!” and “Conflict of Interest!” would come from all corners. Including me, probably. So we’re stuck waiting.

I’ve argued that companies like Halliburton need to take extra care to not appear like they’re benefitting unfairly from the war, and that the Bush administration needs to do everything it can to make sure that there isn’t any perception of favortism toward current or former business partners. Maybe this cell phone situation has been caused by exactly those efforts. Just a thought.

I’ve done a little more research on this and here’s what I’ve found.

A CNN/Money link entitled “Iraq Awaits Cell Phone Service” and dated 7/31 leads nowhere.

This story dated 7/28 was 404, but Google has a cache. A Grand Rapids, MI, company has set up three centers in Baghdad where people can make affordable telephone calls and send out uncensored e-mail. They planned to have 20 such centers up by the end of September.

Here’s a little story about the on-and-then-off service mentioned earlier. It includes a dead link to a Reuters story about opposition to US plans to issue permits.

Here’s an April story about how implementing Wi-Fi while rebuilding Iraq could speed the introduction of broadband to that country. Nice, but I’m not sure that it’s a priority. Still, maybe providing security for Wi-Fi access points would be easier than installing a guarding land lines.

Here’s an MSNBC article about the service working in Iraq.

Here’s a May story about WorldCom winning the contract to supply mobile phone service for military and aid workers in Iraq. It’s a seperate deal from the national service provider contract.

Here’s a map of cell phone coverage in Iraq. You have to look carefully. KurdTel is the only current provider. The page also has a story about how the US blocked French and German companies from bidding on the contract (which I think is just fine) by banning companies that are more than 5% owned by national governments.

Another interesting requirement is that any bidder must hold at least five cellular licenses. They could all be in the same country, and considering the fragmented license allocation in the USA, this ruling seems to favour the US based networks. Any other bidder would have to operate in at least five separate countries.

But will Iraqi cell phone service assist terrorists?