The political will to establish stable internet high-security areas is missing because “the internet really democratises a lot of voices".
Twenty-four-year-old Najam Soomro spent nearly a month in his makeshift office, a straw hut atop a dune built by local shepherds as an overnight resting place. He had returned home from Hyderabad to the Tharparkar district – a desert region in Pakistan’s southeast, following the government-imposed lockdown due to COVID-19 in March.
The hut was the closest place to his home he could find that had an internet connection. “After two days of searching for signals, we found this place four kilometers to the south from our village,” he says. “There was a private telecom company’s tower close by. So, we decided to work from there.” With him was his brother Aijaz Rauf and cousin Siraj Uddin, who would trek that distance to watch educational videos on YouTube since their colleges in the city lacked the resources to conduct online classes.
The hut was not an ideal home office. “When there was a sandstorm, I couldn’t work on my laptop.” The nearest charging station for his device was also in another village. “My cousin would take my laptop for the night to charge in another village, and bring it back the next day. The battery would last me six to seven hours, and I could work in only that time.”
Soomro’s village is 6kms away from the Indian border and considered a red-zone by the country’s security forces. When he published a post about his working conditions on social media, a private telecom company executive contacted him and offered to set up boosters on nearby telecommunication towers. He also, however, affirmed Soomro’s hunch that erecting a mobile internet tower in his area was not possible due to the region’s high-security status.
Since the lockdown, many rural migrant workers and students have returned to their hometowns, often in far-flung, underdeveloped regions. They are either socio-economically backward or digitally excluded.
Anger builds up
In the northern areas of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, a disputed region between India and Pakistan that borders some of the world’s most volatile military flashpoints, locals have been demanding better internet services. Student protests were held earlier this month, and native internet activists propelled #Internet4GilgitBaltistan to Pakistan’s top twitter trend charts.
“It takes five minutes to upload one tweet,” says Islamabad-based lawyer Hajat Ali Hunzai, who hails from the Hunza district in GB and is spearheading the Digital Rights Movement for Gilgit-Baltistan. “And at least five minutes to upload a one KB-sized picture on Facebook. Pictures from latest smart phones cannot be uploaded at all.”
We are travelling to the peak of mountains for online classes without food and electricity facilities. This is just next level torture 😢 #HEC_PromoteToNextSemester #gilgitbaltistanstudents— Aqib علی Na33m (@lahito_) June 4, 2020
More than eighty students have returned to his village from various locations around the country since the lockdown eased. “They walk at least three hours every day to connect with their online classes,” he says. “They are students, not mountain climbers.”
“We are sick of finding that Internet corner in our homes,” complains Amna Baig, a student of National University of Science and Technology, Islamabad. “One day it is near the TV; the other day it is near the gate. Just to send a simple WhatsApp message. In these circumstances, we can’t be expected to perform just like students in cities with all the internet privileges.”
Some universities are accommodating students from remote areas by mailing USBs with lessons and assignments, but such extraordinary measures are few and far between, and not entirely convenient.
Meanwhile, in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan which has suffered from decades of insurgencies and sectarian violence and where nine districts out of thirty-two have no internet infrastructure, students braved baton-charges and arrests last month when they protested against the policy of online classes. In the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas near the Afghan border, where internet remains suspended since the 2016 border clashes between Pakistan and Afghanistan, students are having to scale mountains to access internet signals on their devices – and many have taken to the streets to demand the lifting of the internet ban.
Pakistan’s digital divide
The United Nations recognizes internet access as a basic human right, with the UN Secretary-General António Guterres calling it an “essential global public good” and “a matter of life and death" for people who do not have access to essential healthcare information during COVID-19.
At present, Pakistan ranks a dismal 76 out of 100 countries in the ranking for digital inclusivity, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Inclusive Internet Index 2020. Telecom indicators by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) show that only 39 percent of the population has access to fixed broadband and mobile internet - deprived either due to the rural-urban divide, income inequality or digital infrastructure gaps. The World Bank data shows that Pakistan has fared worse than other countries in developing its internet infrastructure over the years.
Regionally, too, Pakistan has lagged behind its neighbours. Other South Asian countries such as Bangladesh and India rank better than Pakistan in the Inclusive Internet Index, placed at 46 and 70 respectively, in spite of being plagued by similar problems in the digital realm, such as gender exclusivity, rural-urban divide and socio-economic disparity. India however is still notorious when it comes to the internet shutdowns, taking the first spot in the global internet gag.
To address the issue of digital divide, Pakistan has created a Universal Service Fund (USF) through a public-private partnership that receives 1.5 percent of the annual revenue from private telecommunication companies.
Article 19 of the Pakistan Constitution also guarantees every citizen the right to freedom of speech and expression, but there is a caveat that allows law enforcers to clampdown on the internet: that if something endangers the security of the state and the public order, among other things, it will be banned.
The deployment of the USF – and private sector operations - have hence proven difficult in areas that are controlled by the Pakistan Army.
Behind monopoly lies security control
Tough terrains and economic infeasibility are often cited as reasons for the inadequate provision of internet services in some parts of Pakistan. The mountains of GB and the tribal areas – some of which rise as high as 8,000m - render villages and towns inaccessible, while low demand for digital services make it commercially unviable to invest on their telecommunication infrastructure.
When an 820km-long optical fibre cable running through GB was operationalised earlier this month to connect the capital Islamabad to Xinjiang in China under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), it raised questions over the state’s seriousness in addressing the region’s internet problem - and discredited the topography argument.
One of Hunzai’s demands from the Special Communications Organization (SCO) – the only internet services provider in GB, run by the army - is to connect the optic fibre to adjoining areas in GB. While the CPEC Authority of Pakistan – also headed by a retired army general - promises high-speed internet coverage for GB on its website, there has been no attempt during the COVID-19 lockdown to connect the region to CPEC’s digital network. In fact, the internet has only been made functional for Islamabad, with future plans to extend it to Gwadar and Karachi in the south.
The CPEC Authority and SCO did not respond to requests for comment.
In the past, the SCO has blocked private sector competition and effectively ensured its monopoly over Internet services in the region. Those calling out the SCO for their terrible services were labeled “anti-state” in an official Twitter statement.
The only private mobile internet provider allowed in some parts of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, Telenor, alleged in a tweet last week that additional spectrums needed for the improvement of internet services in the region have not been auctioned despite repeated requests, while digital services in the rest of the country have been readily upgraded.
In 2017, the SCO sought to block another private telecom entity, Zong 4G, from applying for a license with the PTA to operate in the region. In the Islamabad High Court, it argued that Section 39 and 40 of the Pakistan Telecommunication (Reorganization) Act of 1996 (amended in 2005) granted it exclusive rights over internet service provision in the area. The case is pending to this day.
Hence, the state’s resistance in allowing private-sector companies in strategically important areas, appears to be more about exercising control over the flow of information and preventing civil activism than anything else.
“Security forces have kept those places under strict watch, and clearly do not want a lot of attention placed on these regions,” says Nighat Dad, founder of the advocacy group Digital Rights Foundation. “During our own research at DRF … people from Parachinar [in tribal areas] talked about how the situation around internet connectivity was much better a few years back, but suddenly these connections dropped or became significantly worse.”
Usama Khilji, director of Bolo Bhi, a digital rights outfit, says that the political will to establish stable internet high-security areas is missing because “the internet really democratises a lot of voices; social media gives people the chance to organise.”
To ensure that public resentment about the digital divide – which has been exacerbated by the pandemic - does not evolve into a security crisis, the government will have to redress the citizen’s grievances now.