Friday, July 15, 2011
Iran and Modernity, to be or not to be?
by Amir Taheri
How is Iran dealing with modernity and technology? For a nation that loves gadgets and new things, the report card is mixed. In some fields Iran seems to be the leader in its fields and in other areas the road to modernity has a few bumps along the way. Walking around town, getting in shared taxis, or just shopping around, I see a large amount of people walking around with the latest gadgets, like the iphone 4 or the HTC and Blackberry rivals. To contrasts this, I venture to guess that many people have not activated their internet on their phones. The mobile world of walk and surf has not really caught on here yet. This while the mobile phone carriers offer very affordable deals for internet usage. I get 2 Gigs worth of surfing for only $10 a month. This is the case in Shiraz but might be different in the fast pace city of Tehran. Internet connections are still 2G but the third mobile operator will soon launch 3G exclusively for the first 2 years. Connections are also surprisingly good with towers everywhere even in the front yards of some homes that have signed up for moblie towers and don't mind the monthly royalty fee of upwards of $1,000.
The world of transportation is a heavy Work in Progress (WIP). Airlines are popping up almost monthly. This is because increased airline ticket prices are drawing in new firms that were otherwise kept out of the market earlier with below cost domestic prices. North Iran has a new comer called Ata airlines. This airline connects Tabriz with additional flights to most major cities in Iran. It's private investors are quickly adding new planes to further frequency and starting international flights. Taban Air in Mashhad has been around longer but is also expanding with the current rush, becoming recently Iran's 4th largest airline. A new regional player has begun its work out of Esfehan with Iranian produced planes, the An-140 or Iran-140 as it is referred to. They operate currently 6 planes and the small 52 person aircraft is mostly used in short stop flights. The problems for these airlines are abundant though. New plane purchases are out of the question apart from Iranian produced An-140 and possibly a future joint venture for the larger An-158. There is almost no entertainment on these flights (moslty under an hour) and on international flights there are shared screens showing an Iranian film with subtitles. The Industry is growing rapidly but is aiming only to meet the basic need of going from point A to B. Mahan Air is the only exception, being Iran's second largest airline and operating the newest, cleanest, and friendliest crews in the industry.
Tehran's metro is rapidly expanding with its Mayor dutifully attending each new station launch. It is clean, efficient, a cool escape in summer from the heat above ground, and the art underground is museum quality. What they lack is fast enough trains being built and shipped to Iran from China. Iran Khodro has taken up the task of building trains as it sees the market very plentiful with Metros operating or planned in Esfehan, Tabriz, Shiraz, Ahwaz, and Mashhad. Mahhad's metro opened earlier this year and has a second line coming online most likely next year. Shiraz might get its partly up and running this year with Tabriz set for 2012. As most of these lines are a WIP, buses and taxis fill in the gaps. Iran has a funny and eco-friendly shared taxi system. At first I found this a bit awkward and overwhelming to use but now it has become a fast and cost effective way to get around. You need to know the routes that are possible and than simply wait on any roadside until a shared taxi approaches. You hollower your destination as the taxi slows down (not fully stopping) and if it meets with his/her route then they will stop long enough for you to climb in! The taxi will continue to invite passengers until 3 sit in the back and one in the front. A large number of cars on the road are such taxis. I imagine the days of these shared taxis are near its end when metros and further buses are added to the transportation network.
Banking is surprisingly as modern as it can get. There is an overabundance of ATMs around the city. You can withdraw money from any ATM or bank without a fee even if its not your own bank. Internet banking is faster than anywhere I have seen in the world. Whereas I always waited up to 48 hours in Europe or America for funds to be transfered, in Iran using their own (Shetab system) funds are transfered instantly. This system seems to be a separate system from the internet and therefore can quickly transfer funds among any bank, retailer, or organization in Iran without having to connect to the international wiring system. You can pay bills at your bank's ATM, and most other banking tasks you might in the West.
Internet is well the internet but slower and more expansive. I pay roughly 50 dollars for unlimited 512KB connection. For those wondering back what that speed was like, well a 5 min Youtube video takes about 2-3 mins to fully load. Pages open as fast as any normal internet connection but you notice the speed when you are watching your favorite episodes online. Here where I would have needed only 2-3 mns for 45 min video to load, I now need about 15 mins of heads up load time before starting to watch a series. Before coming to Iran I had nightmares about the internet in Iran. Apart from the heavy cost, (my largest monthly cost) I can live with the speeds and using software can access Facebook. Every couple of months prices come down further and speeds get better as more competition enters the market.
Then there is just the odd ball mind bogglers that makes Iran that interesting places it is. You will see a nomadic villager walking around town with traditional cloths and talking on his mobile phone. Or see an automatic mechanical car park next to an old building (google "automatic mechanical car park" if your wondering what that is). Internet surfing and posting clerics have to be the most interesting of the them all. There are currently sites where those seeking religious guidance can log in and ask a cleric their question and expect to have a response within 48 hours. Then there are the ingenious things like retail websites that let you buy things through sites like Ebay or Amazon from Iran. One such site lets you send them a link containing any book from Amazon and they will order it and deliver to your door (Iranians are kept out of the Western credit card world). Advances in space, medicine and stem cell research, robotics, and nanotechnology will have to be discussed in another editorial.
Editor’s Note: Amir Taheri is one of the authors of Uskowi on Iran. His weekly columns appear here on Fridays.
Photo courtesy of Fars News Agency