In March, media reports began circulating about the government’s plan to introduce 4G broadband services in both Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK), with an announcement to that effect expected to be made on March 23. Although no such announcement was made on the day the country celebrated Resolution Day, sources in the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoITT) reportedly said the government had decided to open up “digital roads” in both regions, and the auction proceeds for new spectrum would be finalised by mid-May.
“The auction of 4G licences will be held before June 30 and it will not only bring high-speed internet to GB and AJK but also the benefits of higher revenues for their governments,” the sources said.
Recently Prime Minister Imran Khan was given a briefing by the IT Ministry and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), where GB Chief Minister Khalid Khurshid and senior officials of the AJK government and the GB secretariat were also present.
The PM was told that the U.K.-based consulting firm Frontier Economics Ltd. was working on the parameters and mode of the spectrum auction of 1,800 MHz and 2,100 MHz bands across the country. The same firm will reportedly be responsible for determining the base price, policy and other requirements related to auction of 4G licences in GB and AJK.
According to media reports, a senior PTA official also said the proceeds from the auction will be deposited in the National Consolidated Fund, while a mechanism to give the share of proceeds to GB and AJK has also been devised. Additionally, the revenues of AJK and GB are expected to increase through a 19.5 percent general sales tax on services levied on both telephony and internet usage.
The plans to introduce internet services in these regions have been a long time coming, with access to the resource being notoriously low. A similar situation was recently seen in Waziristan, where the coronavirus pandemic exposed the massive communication gap at a provincial level, enabled by virtually non-existent access to the internet for the people of Waziristan and other tribal regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) – previously known of FATA. Students struggled to keep up with their education as they traveled hundreds of kilometers to be able to attend online classes. Moreover, women, who already bear the brunt of the gender digital divide, face restrictions due to a patriarchal society, with the state’s inability to provide them internet services further keeping them from researching critical information like healthcare, education and social justice. In a study by Media Matters for Democracy titled Women Disconnected: Feminist Case Studies on the Gender Digital Divide Amidst COVID-19, it was found that a lot of women had lost their lives because of the unavailability of the internet.
Keeping these, and many more, consequences of the lack of access in mind, the reports detailing the government’s plan to introduce 4G services in GB and AJK were long overdue.
A tenuous connection
The Special Communication Organization (SCO) is a public sector organization operating under the Ministry of IT to develop, operate and maintain telecom services in AJK and GB. According to its LinkedIn profile, it provides landline telephony (PSTN), wireless local loop (WLL), cellular mobile (GSM) broadband internet (DSL), digital cross connect (DXX), long distance international (LDI), domestic private leased circuits (DPLC) and co-location facilities to telecom industry players operating in AJK and GB. Despite this long list of services, the people of GB are still struggling to gain access to the internet.
SCO is authorised to provide telecom services in the region under the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organisation) Act, 1996, and so far no other telecom operator has been licensed to enter the market. Some sources suggest that Telenor Pakistan is providing cellular services in parts of GB but the quality of both of these services remain low, leading to residents struggling to connect to basic communication services.
Belonging to the city of Skardu in GB, Wazir Muzafar is a 44 year old journalist and a council member of the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan. Muzafar told Digital Rights Monitor that the city already has access to 3G and 4G services, provided by Telenor and SCO. However, he maintains the internet quality is extremely slow in the few areas where they are available.
“In the main cities, in district headquarters, those areas have 4G services. A lot of people that are located in mountainous areas don’t have those services available at all. Even in the city, the 4G services [quality] is extremely poor,” he said.
He further echoed the aforementioned situation in Waziristan, saying that 30 percent of students in the area enrolled in Open University failed in their online exams as they could not submit their papers on time. He further said that local students studying in Islamabad and Lahore-based universities cannot come back home during the pandemic, due to frequent electricity blackouts and the lack of internet access.
Muhammad Rafay*, a 33 year old journalist also belonging to Skardu, said that despite SCO providing internet services to the region, the connection remains fragile and unreliable. Since Telenor relies on the technological and technical support of SCO, their services are not much better or faster, he said.
According to Muzafar, the internet works intermittently, functioning for an hour or so before stopping for several hours or the whole day. “It’s a 3G or 4G service by name. Even if you look in the cities, the standard is more similar to 2G services,” he remarked.
Bringing in other telecom providers
The government-owned entity SCO is the main provider of telecom services in the region, but Rafay* said that other companies claim that they face difficulty in getting a licence to operate in the region, as well as facing major hindrance from the SCO. He said that in his most recent visit to Gilgit, he met the commanding officer who denied the claims made by the companies and said that the SCO welcomes new telecom companies to the area.
Personally, Rafay* believes that other companies refrain from venturing into GB as they cannot find a decent revenue stream in the region. They also may not believe that 3G and 4G services could catch on there. “It’s a far-flung area, the population is very little,” he said.
According to Rafay*, Skardu is a district of about 2 lac people, but more remote cities in the district are home to few people, with some towns having as few as 10 or 20 households. The condensed population could be a potential reason that GB has seen such little interest from the private telecom sector.
Muzafar also said that SCO has a monopoly in the area and does not want other telecom providers entering. He said that the Prime Minister was supposed to make a visit to GB on April 5 in relation to the development, but did not come due to turbulent weather.
On the other hand, 49 year-old media producer Syed Abrar Haider from Muzaffarabad, Azad Kashmir, said that the Prime Minister did indeed come to Azad Kashmir around February 5, but did not make any such comments regarding internet accessibility. “Here, as such, I have not heard nor have I seen any [relevant] activity in Azad Kashmir,” he remarked.
Bringing more accessibility to the area would help people like Haider, whose daughter studies at National University of Modern Languages (NUML), and must now choose between coming home at the cost of her education or stay in the city without her family. He admitted to not knowing much about technology, but said he knows enough to recognise that the services being offered in AJK are extremely lackluster.
Haider remarked that the same internet package that someone from Islamabad could buy for PKR 400 or PKR 500 would cost PKR 50 or PKR 100 more for the people of AJK due to taxes. He said the residents of AJK pay more for the same service but receive a product lacking in the quality offered to residents of big cities.
Access to the internet a matter of security
An oft-cited concern when it comes to offering the internet in places that suffer from poor connectivity is security concerns. Muzafar said there is a misconception that the area is dangerous or suffers from security problems. He said that when 4G services first came to Pakistan, the Ministry of Defence objected to introducing the services in GB as it is a “border area.” Muzafar further noted that these services are often available in spots where the military or other officials might need to use them, but are not made available to the public.
Rafay* echoed a similar sentiment, saying that there is no truth in the claim that there are security concerns in the area. He said that since GB is a border area, this may prove to be a cause of concern, but internally the region does not suffer from safety issues. “If we talk about GB, this is a peaceful area. There is zero crime rate. There is no danger that someone might blow up your fiber optic cable.”
His only concern was that GB is a remote area, where providing services can prove to be a difficult and time-consuming process.
Haider said that the concerns about security are generally valid for the residents and soldiers near the Line of Control, where safety measures are often put in place. However, in cities like Muzaffarabad or Mirpur, there are little to no security concerns, so there is no reason for internet services to not have already been introduced in the area.
Both Muzafar and Rafay* see it as welcome news that the government is attempting to bring in other service providers in the area. Struggling to find consistent connectivity in a region sorely lacking it, they both hope and believe that there will be further development in the matter before year-end.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the people.