“A Good Investment Opportunity,” says the sign fixed across the window of Ayman Thafer’s internet café located on Palestine Street, central Baghdad. Al-Burjain café was one of the most famous internet cafes in Baghdad following the fall of the old regime in April 2003. Yet, its owner, thirty-seven year old Thafer is now desperately trying to sell or rent out the shop as internet usage increasingly moves to home access.
For most, internet service was not available during the days of Saddam Hussein. Very few government offices had access to internet and those that did were strictly controlled by intelligence agencies. In 2000 it was estimated that just 12,500 Iraqis used the internet.
Since April 2003, however, internet use has fallen beyond the range of government control and is run without restrictions by the private sector. Today it is estimated that over 275,000 Iraqis regularly use the internet.
The internet has become a means of communicating with the outside world and a crucial media tool used in political conflicts in the “new Iraq.”
The conditions of these cafes, especially those located in sectarian diverse areas such as Palestine street, changed with the sectarian strife that flared up in 2006. Thafer, the owner of the al-Burjain café, was one of the victims of the conflict. He was threatened with murder if he did not “stop working with the Shiites.” On the back of these threats Ayman closed his shop and fled to Syria.
Sectarian violence also had a decisive effect on the nature of internet use. Meeting friends in Baghdad on chat services such as MSN Messenger became far easier than real-life meetings. “The absence of cafes and the frequent acts of violence made us all meet on Messenger where we shared images and audio files and chatted for many hours," said Ali al-Yasiri, a student at al-Mustansiriya University.
When Thafer recently returned to Iraq following the improvement in security conditions he found a different internet world. Today, “many people have their own home subscriptions and they don’t need to go to internet cafes anymore,” he said, explaining his need to sell his shop.
That being said, home internet connections remain poor in quality and home subscribers complain loudly about the bad service they receive. According to al-Yasiri, connection is only available at certain points every day and the quality gradually declines once you are connected.
Atheer Muhammad, an electronics engineer, says the reason for the bad connection is the high number of subscribers – a number far beyond the capacity of the system. Iraq’s internet network also runs through satellite-based connections and not the faster optic-cables which are used across much of the rest of the Gulf.
Home subscribers also blame the slow connection on private companies who play the role of intermediary with internet companies located outside Iraq. Sattar Jabbar, a subscriber in Shaab area, north of Baghdad, says that the main reason for the poor internet service in Baghdad is that internet companies are not subject to any government control.
Unstable internet services have encouraged new internet companies, such as ‘Itisalatuna’ and ‘Umniya’, to enter the market. The two companies connect computers to mobile phones, allowing people to make cheap internet telephone calls. The quality, however, also remains poor.
Now, the Iraqi Ministry of Communications, acknowledging the huge demand for internet services, has announced the launch of major investment projects to develop the country’s internet infrastructure.