global tech

Afghanistan’s Real Internet Lives on Its Streets

An Afghan street vendor sells music he uploads to customers' mobile phones in downtown Kabul.
An Afghan street vendor sells music he uploads to customers’ mobile phones in downtown Kabul. Photo: Jawad Jalali/AFP/Getty Images

At a dusty street market in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Aziz is shopping for digital files: games, music, videos, ghazals (recitations of love poetry), and naat (anthems praising the Prophet Muhammad), to add to his already extensive mobile entertainment collection. When he makes his choice and completes the purchase, he’ll connect his Android smartphone to the seller’s computer, and the seller will make the transfer. Unlike if he were to download it himself, the delivery is almost instant.

The 25-year-old has constant internet access via his 3G data plan, and he uses this for Facebook, YouTube videos, and playing Clash of Clans. But that doesn’t make the offline marketplace of digital content — the “Sneakernet” — any less useful.

The term first appeared in the 1980s in the early days of computer networking, as a retronym to describe how content used to be transferred: manually. One person physically sent a memory drive to another. This explains its tongue-in-cheek name — “Sneakernet” referred to the (presumably) sneaker-clad movement that propelled the transfer.

Once networking became faster and more stable, Sneakernets fell out of common use. Now, for most internet users, everything can be stored and shared almost immediately through cloud servers, but what if your internet connection is more limited? Afghanistan has one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the world; only about a tenth of its population, or 3.5 million people, was online in 2016, and yet, that low rate of penetration belies a society that is increasingly digitally connected.

This is thanks to the widespread availability of the mobile phone (as of early 2018, countrywide mobile-phone penetration was an estimated 80 percent) and the Afghan Sneakernet.

In urban centers, young men — and it is virtually all young men — work as content dealers (in Dari, Afghanistan’s main language, it’s called the somewhat more ambiguous Computer kar, or “computer worker”). At the most basic level, a Sneakernet micro-business might consist simply of a plastic stool, an old laptop, and a hard drive set up on the side of a busy intersection.

The more successful vendors have more elaborate setups. In central marketplaces that also sell fresh produce and household goods, shaded by large umbrellas emblazoned with the logo of one of the country’s mobile-phone companies, these content dealers might also offer basic cell-phone repairs, phones, and other electronic devices for sale, and even social-media account setup or password help.

Meanwhile, the most successful have their own shops, where digital content is just an add-on offering to their main business of selling computers, smartphones, and other higher-value electronics.

But none of this is organized in the traditional sense. Unlike with “El Paquete” in Cuba, for example, where digital content is distributed through mass mail subscriptions, Afghan Sneakernet sellers choose what content to sell and download it themselves or, at most, share content with just a few other sellers. Meanwhile, users buy content ad hoc.

Many Sneakernet users never buy from a vendor at all, but instead share and receive content via friend networks: Bluetooth connections, available even on feature phones, transfer songs, photos, and low-resolution videos, while hard drives with collections of TV series and movies that rival Netflix for their diversity make their rounds between computer-owning friends.

Much of this is content that is unavailable on Afghan media. Naveed Pasoon, a young professional based in Kabul, recently received the last season of Game of Thrones from a friend. “My internet quality was a little bit weak, and he had it in HD, so we shared,” he explains.

Unlike many Afghans, Pasoon has multiple points of internet access: internet at his office, Wi-Fi at home, and 3G data on his smartphone. But even so, sometimes, the Sneakernet just makes more sense. “It takes some time to download. One of the episodes of the series is 200 MB,” he says. “If I download it, I have to wait 10, 15, even 20 minutes … just for one episode.”

And even when content is available on traditional media, the Sneakernet is still attractive. Some 150 private radio stations and 50 television stations broadcast throughout Afghanistan, with a number of them dedicated to — or at least regularly playing — the Islamic content that Aziz, the 25-year-old from Kandahar, buys via a content dealer. But the difference between Islamic content on TV or radio versus on one’s smartphone is that the former is not available on demand. The Sneakernet isn’t an alternative to the internet, but to traditional media services.

Afghanistan’s Real Internet Lives on Its Streets