Iraq will auction a fourth mobile telecoms licence at the beginning of 2012 pending government approval expected next month, Communications Minister Mohammed Allawi said.
The new carrier will be up against Zain Iraq, a unit of Kuwait's Zain , Qatar Telecom (Qtel) affiliate Asiacell and Korek Telecom, which is based in the Kurdish north and is part-owned by France Telecom SA and Kuwaiti logistics firm Agility .
In early October, Allawi reiterated the fourth licence would likely be allocated so that a 40 per cent share would go to the winning bidder, 35 per cent to the public and 25 per cent to the Communications Ministry.
"I have submitted all the papers to the council of ministers," Allawi told Reuters in an interview late on Tuesday before the opening of a telecommunications conference in Istanbul. "I should get a response definitely, God willing, within November."
On Wednesday, Allawi said in a conference speech the auction would likely happen in early 2012.
Iraq is one of the few regional markets to offer double-digit subscriber growth, with mobile penetration low by Middle East standards at 76 per cent, according to 2010 International Telecommunication Union data. That puts Iraq 133rd in the world.
While mobile phones were introduced in Iraq's northern Kurdish region in 1999, the rest of the country did not have a mobile market under Saddam Hussein and the sector has grown rapidly since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
There are now around 23 million mobile subscribers, according to the Communications and Media Commission (CMC), which regulates telecommunications. Iraq has a population of about 30 million.
Allawi also said in his speech that Iraq would have laid 20,000 kilometres of fibre optic cable by next year.
The aim was to connect 8 million lines with fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) in the next five years, he said.
Iraq has 1.2 million landlines, of which only 800,000 are in working order, while Internet penetration is just 3 per cent.
Allawi said 18 companies are each installing 100,000 fibre lines to homes.
"Our target for 2012 is to have almost 1.8 million lines," he told Reuters. "So I believe this will increase the (internet) penetration rate dramatically."
Allawi said he expects parliament to vote on a long-awaited communications law, a crucial step in the development of the telecoms sector, before the end of the year. The sector currently relies on pre-2003 legislation.
Zain, Asiacell and Korek are required by Iraqi law to launch initial public offerings on the Iraq Stock Exchange by Aug. 31 as part of their 15-year, $1.25 billion operating licences secured in 2007.
All three missed the deadline. The CMC said earlier this month that the companies were unlikely to list until the middle of next year and would not be penalised for missing the deadline.