February 3, 2021 – The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), in its annual report for FY2020, reports the increase of 17 percent in broadband internet connectivity from the previous year taking the overall broadband penetration to 42.4 percent of the population, and 60 percent growth in 4G subscription as of October 2020. The report which was published on February 2 on PTA’s website, highlights that 98 percent of the households in the country own a mobile phone, and mobile service penetration reached 81.1 percent in the surveyed months, whereas, an increase of 77 percent was recorded in data usage.
The report, which can be accessed here, also outlines the regional cost of mobile internet connectivity, and highlights the most affordable rates of mobile internet being offered in Pakistan. It states, “mobile data prices declined to only 0.70% of the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita—well below the UN Broadband Commission’s recommendation of less than 2%.”
Referring to the ICT Price Trends 2019 report by International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the PTA report states that 1.5 GB data in Pakistan costs US$0.99 compared to $1.43 in India, $2.15 in Sri Lanka, $2.74 in Bangladesh, and $3.40 in Iran.
According to PTA, the stats showed a growth in the ownership of 4G devices to 34 percent in May 2020 from 16 percent in January 2018, and a decline in 3G and 2G devices to 12 percent from 19 percent and to 54 percent to 64 percent respectively.
The report also breaks down mobile ownership by province and gender, and finds that according to the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement (PSLM) survey of 2018-2019, where 98 percent of the households have mobile devices, 45 percent individuals own them.
The survey examines ownership of these devices by provinces, and finds that 46.2 percent of the population in Punjab own a mobile device, 45.56 percent population of Sindh owned individual devices, 44.68 percent of population of KPK owned their own mobile device, whereas, 37.26 percent of the total population of Balochistan owned individual mobile devices.
There was a visible gender digital divide in ownership of mobile phone devices. Out of the 45 percent total individual ownership, 64.83 percent ownership belongs to men, whereas 26.35 percent women own mobile devices. In addition, women’s ownership of mobile devices in KPK and Punjab stood at 27.83 percent compared to men’s at 63.21 percent and 65.82 percent respectively; women’s ownership of individual mobile phone in Sindh was 24.5 percent compared to men’s which stood at 65.36 percent; and only 13.72 percent women in Balochistan owned a mobile device compared to 58.21 percent men in the province.
The report mentions that the PTA, in partnership with telecom companies, adopted a proactive awareness raising strategy under which it disseminated 2 billion awareness messages through SMS, and 240 million subscribers were reached through messaging on how to prevent COVID-19 infection. The report further states that the telecom industry noted a 19 percent increase in mobile data traffic during the pandemic, with a growth of 37.8 percent in Domestic Voice traffic in the third quarter which declined to 19.8 percent in the fourth quarter; 19.9 percent growth in data traffic in third quarter which decreased to 17.6 percent in the fourth quarter still maintaining a growth of 4 percent from the second quarter (pre-COVID FY2020) which stood at 13.6 percent.
Despite this constant growth in numbers, millions of people in the country continued to be disconnected from the internet which resulted in peaceful protests and online campaigns from students and workers who were unable to attend online classes or do their work as the lockdown was in place across the country. In the early stages of the spread of the virus, many people from ex-FATA reported unawareness among residents about the COVID-19 pandemic that was crippling the entire world leading to irreversible impact on healthcare of the citizens and the healthcare system of the region.
Owing to the constant protests and requests from the students to restore internet access in disconnected regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (PK), Balochistan and Gilgit Baltistan, the Prime Minister Imran Khan announced restoration of mobile based internet services in Wana, one of the regions of ex-FATA, on January 20, 2021 in an event that he was attending. However, as of writing this article, the internet has still not been restored.
Where the PTA annual report 2020 highlights the potential of a booming digital economy with constant increase in connectivity to the internet and digital technology, it also paints a worrying picture of internet governance and regulations in the country with increased censorship and crackdown on online speech. According to the report, the regulator blocked a total of 27,986 objectionable content in 2019-2020, bringing the total number of blocked objectionable content to 418,139 since 2016. The most number of content that the Authority blocked pertained to Hate Speech with 8,161 URLs blocked between 2019-2020, followed by 6,910 URLs for Glory of Islam; 5,237 URLs for Decency and Morality bringing the total number of blocked content under this category since 2016 to 348,560. PTA also 5,053 URLs blocked for Defence of Pakistan in 2019-2020.
In 2020, PTA aggressively issued notices to social media platforms and blocked online content under the garb of decency and morality, and formulated legislation like the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2020, to regulate and monitor online content, in addition to exercising its the blanket powers that the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016 grants the Authority under widely criticised Section 37. It blocked online mobile game PUBG in July 202, blocked the live video streaming app Bigo Live in the same month, issued multiple notices to video sharing app TikTok, issued notice to YouTube in August, blocked 5 dating apps in September, blocked 980,000 URLs by January 2021, including a website called Best Netflix Movies for sacrilegious content.
The online censorship regime by PTA continued throughout the year as more people moved to social media for entertainment and communication during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. With the Social Media Rules 2020 in effect coupled with the powers to PTA under section 37 of PECA, civil society and technology industry have criticised PTA’s authority to arbitrarily ban online content and have moved to Courts to challenge the censorship.