The town of Rumbek in southern Sudan is getting used to a sound never heard before -- the ringing of a mobile phone. "This only happens once in a lifetime -- the chance to build something from scratch," said a foreign entrepreneur in Rumbek. Fighting had left southern Sudan a black spot for telecommunications until last August when the region's first mobile phone operator -- Network of the World (NOW) -- was set up with a multimillion dollar investment.

Satellite dishes, generators, computers, a telecoms mast and a wooden shed for an Internet cafe were transported piecemeal to the bush, by convoy and chartered plane. Despite a chronic lack of trained technicians and engineers in southern Sudan, a network was up and running within four months. The new mast stands at a site dominated by an enormous dilapidated satellite dish, intended for a fixed line phone system. Government troops bombed the dish in the 1980s before it had a chance to get started.

There are now about 1,000 subscribers to NOW in two towns -- Rumbek and Yei, and Richard Herbert, NOW's operations director, is confident that number will increase five-fold by the end of the year. "Our long-term goal is to get as many mobile phones into people's hands as possible so that relatives abroad can get in touch," he told Reuters in an interview. "For most people, receiving phone calls is more important than making them because they don't have the buying power yet."