Afghans headed to the polls today for parliamentary elections in a tense but hopeful atmosphere. If the Internet has a role to play this year in helping Afghanistan develop a peaceful civil society, it will probably turn on two key developments: cheap GPRS Internet delivered over mobile phones, and strong relationships with neighboring states to provide Internet transit.
In today's followup to last week's blog, we present the evidence we see in the global Internet routing tables for a strengthening technical relationship between the Tehran and Kabul governments. In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, Iran now sees an opportunity to export influence by exporting its technological infrastructure.
Take a look at this transit shift plot. It depicts the evolution, over the course of 2010, of the main part of the Afghan government's Internet connectivity (AS55330, "Government Communications Network / District Communications Network"). This is based on the same dataset that Renesys continuously collects from the global Internet routing tables, in order to advise the world's Internet service providers about emerging competition in their regional transit markets.
At the start of 2010, if a Londoner visited an Afghan government website, the IP packets would probably have travelled from London to Marseilles on terrestrial fiber, onto a submarine cable like SMW4. They would have come ashore in Pakistan at Karachi. They would have been carried overland through terrestrial fiber and microwave relays to reach Kabul. It's a simple story, with one path in and one path out.
Adding Uzbek Connectivity
In March 2010, the Afghan government adjusted its visible Internet routing, adding a second Internet provider for redundancy: Intal Telecom, providing connectivity across the Uzbek border, 300km to the north. Now your hypothetical connection to Kabul has a second path it can take: from London to Moscow, then down south to Tashkent (perhaps via Kazakhstan), and across the Uzbek border into Afghanistan. That path might even be a little faster; the Russian and ex-CIS Internet providers take great pride in the capacity and reliability of their Eurasian fiber backbone, and promote it as a more reliable alternative to the submarine cable routes to the south.
So far this looks like a conventional story of transit diversification on the part of the Afghan government, trying to make the national network more reliable and maintain connectivity to the outside world by adding an alternative northern route through the CIS to complement their Pakistan transit.
At this point, however, things take an unexpected turn.
In with Iran
In early April, the Afghan government diversifies yet again, adding a third route through Iran. Now your connection to the Afghan government servers has a third potential path: London to Iran on PCCW's network, across Iran on the domestic fiber network, and across the Afghan border to Herat. From there, it might go on to Kabul, or these might be Herat networks --- they are actually new creations, distinct from the sets of IP address blocks that are historically advertised by the Kabul government.
This is real Iranian transit, via the Iranian state telecommunications provider DCI (ASN 12880), even though the transit routing itself (via Hong Kong's PCCW, probably coming ashore at Jask) is different and more specialized than the bulk of DCI's international transit for Iranian domestic traffic. (One wonders: is the exported Iraqi and Afghan transit subject to the same strict Internet censorship imposed on DCI's domestic customers?)
What it means for Afghanistan, we can only speculate. The western border region where these new networks live has enjoyed significant Iranian investment over the years. The new routes certainly make physical sense, given the existence of Iranian-financed electrical transmission capacity along the Herat highway. The two governments have many common security concerns to manage, obviously, including the massive cross-border drug trade. So it makes sense that Iran might offer to share their Internet pipeline, making it possible for the Afghan government's western regions to stay connected, build mobile data networks, and so forth, with traffic flowing through Tehran.
Out with Pakistan
Finally, looking once more at the transit shift plot above, you can see that the Afghan government phases out Pakistan connectivity entirely for AS55330 networks in June, leaving only the Uzbek/Russian routes and the Iranian routes in place. Let me say that again: in June 2010 the Afghan government turns off long-established international connectivity through Pakistan, having replaced it with Uzbek connectivity, and having added significant capacity to Iran as well. That seems like a geopolitically strategic realignment, not a minor technical adjustment.
So what is Iran up to here?
If you re-read our last blog, you'll notice a similar pattern. In that case, the same kind of Iranian transit suddenly appeared in the global routing tables (within the same 2-week time period) servicing multiple customers in Iraqi Kurdistan, on the other side of Iran, far to the west. The concurrent timing, and the common physical paths implied by the common IP addressing of all these trans-Iranian routes, suggest that both Iraqi and Afghan customers are benefiting from the same Iranian initiative.
The Internet connectivity outreach that we now see in the global routing tables seems like continuing evidence of Iran's long-term strategy: aggressively pursuing bilateral infrastructure and investment projects with its neighbors, in ways that will increase Iran's regional influence after the Americans have moved on.
And who's Iran's next customer?
Maybe Pakistan, believe it or not. Iran has expressed a longstanding desire to export electricity and aid to Baluchistan, Pakistan's restive and energy-starved southern coastal province that has suffered terribly in recent floods. If you're visiting the coastal port of Gwadar next year, and you get out your Blackberry to check your email, don't be surprised if your phone connects to a previously unknown Baluchi GPRS provider with cheap Internet transit through Tehran!