The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) said that instructions have been issued to telecom operators for restoration of internet services in Khyber District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and other areas of certain districts of Balochistan. Areas in Balochistan that will now have access to the internet include Turbat City, Kech, Awaran, Panjgur, Washuk and Kalat along the highways i.e. RCDH, N-30, N-85 and Awaran-Bela Road.
The PTA said that the decision has been taken in “pursuance of the government’s vision of providing internet services across the country”. It also said that approval was given after a “review of the security situation by concerned departments”.
“Cellular Mobile Operators (CMOs) will also be directed to upgrade their existing infrastructure from 2G sites to 3G/4G where feasible, and consider network expansion so that better voice and data services can be extended to residents of these areas,” the PTA added in a press release.
The process of restoration of data services will be implemented in a “phased manner,” subject to review of the security situation.
The regulator said that the decision “will help residents fulfil their educational, health, commerce, and communication needs.”
Bridging the Digital Divide
Notably, although a few areas in Balochistan have been granted clearance for restoration of the services with this latest statement, others continue to remain in the communication blackout. This year, the government decided to offer internet connectivity in areas where it has been vastly lacking. 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). According to residents, the areas suffer from poor internet connectivity due to various reasons, one of which is the oft-cited excuse of “security concerns.” Another reason is the lack of diversity in internet service providers in the regions, with the Special Communication Authority (SCO), a public sector organization operating under the Ministry of IT, providing all of the services.
In Waziristan and other tribal regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the coronavirus pandemic exposed the massive communication gap at a provincial level, as students struggled to attend online classes and exams with non-existent access to the internet. Many had to travel hundreds of kilometers to be able to attend online classes or submit exams, an all too common complaint across areas in Pakistan where internet connectivity is scarce. Some students opted to stay in the cities where they lived to attend universities, worried about missing out on online classes.
In areas where internet services are fragile or nonexistent, women are most impacted. 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 six in ten female internet users who took part in the study faced some kind of restriction from their families when using the internet. A whopping 80% of the respondents who are unable to use the Internet are from South Waziristan, one of the newly merged districts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The research also found evidence that women in the newly merged districts are unable to connect to emergency health services due to lack of connectivity. This, combined with lack of local emergency health care, has resulted in fatalities of women, including during childbirth.