Kabul embassy seeks to build mobile social networks in Afghanistan

U.S. wants to reach out via the phones one-third of the population uses.

The State Departmemt wants to develop social networks in Afghanistan based on the simplest form of communications available to the population: mobile phone text messaging services.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a request for proposals on Monday for a contractor to develop text-based social networks in Afghanistan based on the country's existing mobile phone infrastructure. The embassy wants to use the services to connect groups such as farmers, educators, young people, women and community watchdog organizations.

Though Afghanistan lacks a sophisticated Internet infrastructure to support social networking sites such as Facebook, the Kabul Embassy said the country has seen an explosion in mobile phone use, from 10,000 phones in 2002 to 10 million today.

More than half of Afghan households have cell phones and a third of those who used a mobile phone in the past year sent text messages, according to the State Department's Office of Research.

Lindy Kyzer, an Army public affairs officer who helped spearhead the use of social media in the service, said she viewed the development of mobile text-based social networks in Afghanistan as a "no-brainer," noting that short message service is the most ubiquitous mobile data application in the world, with some 2.4 billion users.

Though Rear Adm. Greg Smith, strategic communications director for NATO and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, has pushed the use of text messaging services as a means of communicating with the Afghanistan populace since he arrived in the country a year ago, Kyzer said the Kabul Embassy project is the largest text messaging project she knows of in Afghanistan.

Isaac Hazard, director of community consulting at Mzinga Inc., a Waltham, Mass-based company that sells social networking software to support marketing communications, said text messaging can serve as an effective means to build social networks in Afghanistan. He pointed to the success of Twitter, whose 140-character messages were designed to operate on mobile text message networks.

Hazard added the social networks developed in Afghanistan would allow the U.S. Embassy to gain a real breadth of knowledge of what is going on in the country and forums created as part of the networks could make it easier to resolve problems.

Embassy officials said they expect the mobile social networks to generate 80 million text messages in the first year of operation, a target Hazard viewed as somewhat ambitious. Typically, only 10 percent of any population taps into social networks, he noted. Based on the number of mobile phones in Afghanistan, achieving the embassy's goal would require social network users to send 800 text messages a year.

Paul Cegielski, spokesman for Sunnyvale, Calif-based mBlox, a text message aggregator, said the social networks the embassy wants to set up pose no technical challenge since all mobile networks have the hardware and software built in to handle text messages. Cegielski said the Afghanistan service could be run from the United States, with no need to install any hardware in Afghanistan.

The Kabul Embassy plans to hold a teleconference for interested vendors on July 12, with bids due July 30.