Rather than wait for decent broadband and Internet access to arrive in their war-battered nation, Iraqis can use an abundance of cellphones to exploit the Web, a group of U.S. technology executives urged on Wednesday.
The executives from Google Inc, AT&T Inc, Twitter and other high tech companies paid a visit to Iraq this week, under the auspices -- and heavy protection -- of the U.S. State Department.
Quizzed about whether the visit was premature given only 5 percent of Iraqis have access to the Internet, the executives insisted desk-top PCs with hard-wired Internet connections were passe; the Web could be used via SMS, or text messages.
Eighty-five percent of Iraqis now have cellular telephones, they said.
While there are many challenges and there is definitely a long way to go for Internet access, we were very impressed at how many Iraqis, there is near ubiquity, use mobile phones, said Richard Robbins, director for social innovation at AT&T.
While networks are still emerging, there is a huge amount of capability for using mobile phones and text messaging for communication, for interacting among citizens and for government and NGOs to interact with citizens.
Twitter founder Jack Dorsey said his network had originally been built to accommodate text messaging but the company hadn't been promoting that basic access much until recently. Twitter was now going around the world, bit by bit, establishing codes that people could text messages through.
In order for text messaging to function, of course, the cellphone network needs to work.
Using cellphones in Iraq in the past few months has become all but impossible due to what the two main networks, including Kuwait's Mobile Telecommunications Co (Zain), have told the government are technical problems.
The tech execs hosted by the U.S. government said at a roundtable discussion with foreign journalists they were impressed with the improved security in Iraq six years after the U.S. invasion triggered massive sectarian bloodletting.
They said an air of normality in the chaotic streets of Baghdad contrasted with TV news images of suicide bombings.
Overall violence in Iraq has fallen dramatically in the past year, and the Iraqi government has called on foreign companies to turn up and invest, but insurgents including al Qaeda continue to carry out frequent and devastating attacks.
The U.S. executives flew by helicopter from Baghdad airport to the U.S. embassy, where they stayed. They went on few outside excursions and then only under heavy guard in armored cars. But they did spend several nights in Baghdad, a feat few visiting foreign businessmen have been willing to undertake to date.
(Reporting by Michael Christie; Editing by Matthew Jones)