September 26, 2020 – On September 23rd, the hashtag #BanPTA started trending on Twitter in Pakistan, to highlight the constant packet loss on the internet connections across the country. Accounts from the gaming community, tech community and other concerned citizens contributed to the trend.
Packet loss is defined in Forcepoint as, “When accessing the internet or any network, small units of data called packets are sent and received. When one or more of these packets fails to reach its intended destination, this is called packet loss. For users, packet loss manifests itself in the form of network disruption, slow service and even total loss of network connectivity. Any application can be disrupted by packet loss, but the most likely victims are applications that rely on real-time packet processing, such as video, audio and gaming programs.”
Gamers in Pakistan reported this packet loss, with one tweet suggesting that this is because the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has been throttling the services of Voice over IP (VoIP) – a technology that turns voice into digital signals allowing users to make internet-based calls, such as WhatsApp or Skype calls.
The members of gaming community speculated that this is not an ISP-related issue, rather is done from PTA’s end as a result of its implementation of the Web Monitoring System (WMS) to curb grey traffic in Pakistan.
However, PTA rejected this in a statement posted on its Twitter account, stating that “it is clarified after checking from internet bandwidth providers that internet traffic including gaming Apps are currently working normal across Pakistan.” It added in the tweet thread, “Attributing the packet loss to PTA without ascertaining factual position or clarifying with PTA is uncalled for and disappointing.”
Whereas, on the evening of September 24, it further posted, “In view of complaints posted on social media about degradation of internet service particularly gaming Apps, PTA has carried out investigations. It was found out that apparently service degradation faced by users is because of bandwidth issues being provided by some operators.”
PTA has signed a contract with Canada-based company Sandvine, to set up the WMS, which will use Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) to monitor, measure and log internet traffic in the country.
Deep Packet Inspection, however, can cause packet loss and network congestion due to the amount of computation required to do the monitoring and logging of internet traffic data.
Wahaj us Siraj, CEO and co-founder of NayaTel and founding member of ISP Association of Pakistan (ISPAK), says, “If PTA needs to run the WMS effectively, it needs to have trained and professional setup to manage this complex system that handles whole country’s bandwidth.” He further adds, “Side by side, PTA needs to establish a 24×7 NOC where operators complaints [regarding] packet loss, VPNs blocking, IP whitelisting, call centers, etc are registered and addressed in minutes.”
Wahaj shared that this process currently takes days, while millions of Internet users blame ISPs for providing slow internet service. He also mentioned a similar outage of AWS servers that happened in Pakistan on 24th July, 2020.
Where the potential impact of the implementation of WMS is becoming evident, experts warn that this technology will have direct impact on the internet in Pakistan, and in extension on the digital economy of the country.
Usama Khilji, Director Bolo Bhi, says, “What this also means is that all users of [the] internet, including businesses, educational institutes, and citizens using the internet for entertainment such as video games and streaming services face a lag. This makes Pakistan a less favourable economy to invest in, [and] makes Pakistani businesses more cumbersome to work with.” He shares that it makes emigration look more lucrative for talented Pakistanis frustrated with an uncertain digital economy.
Sadaf Khan, co-founder of Media Matters for Democracy, adds, “The ongoing trend of censorship of online platforms along with suspension and throttling of web servers and internet services in Pakistan will only deter economic opportunities that the country could potentially benefit from.” She says, “No foreign businesses would want to invest here given the draconian regime that the regulators are trying to set up. PTA can either attempt to control citizens’ Internet usage, or it can invest in promoting the digital economy that is the need of the hour. The current landscape only indicates where the priorities of regulators and government bodies rest.”
Hija is a Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. She combines her experience in digital rights in Pakistan to lead digital rights and internet governance advocacy of MMfD. She tweets at @hijakamran