//CGCS Media Wire provides analysis of recent attempts by Pakistan to temporarily block cellular service to mobile devices during busy times to curtail terrorist concern. More often than not, as Media Wire correspondent Azrak Khan explains, these blackouts have unintended consequences which affect all facets of Pakistani society. Edited by Media Wire Fellow Corey Abramson.
Mobile phones once were thought of as only indispensable in the rich world but the way mobile phones are transforming lives in low income countries it has become an essential and indispensable tool for socio-economic development. For many areas in Pakistan, having limited availability of communication roads, postal services, fixed line services, health services and financial services, Mobile telephony represents the first modern infrastructure of any kind. Mobile phone services have brought new possibilities and opportunities to both the urban and rural, the rich and poor, the young and old in Pakistan. With more than 119 million mobile phone subscribers and a penetration rate passing 70% it is one of world’s fastest growing markets. The penetration of mobile phones in Pakistan – especially to the poor in far flung areas – has done more to alleviate poverty than any number of aid programs combined.
The mobile telephony industry in Pakistan is booming and there is scope for far greater development. In recent times, however the action of the Pakistani government suspending mobile phone services across the country has outraged its users and seriously put in jeopardy many future investment plans. Telecom operators with billions lost in revenues on special occasions such as Eid festival or national events such as independence day celebrations are likely to pull out of investing. Senior officials of the mobile phone companies have expressed resentment over the blackout of mobile phone services and have threatened to postpone their plans of investing billions of dollars in 3G and mobile banking technology.
The habit of suspending of mobile phone services under the pretext of security risk and terrorism in Pakistan takes its origins from the volatile province of Balochistan where the government is fighting nationalist elements in an on going battle. Over the last couple of years, the government has been guilty of causing what many are calling “Blackouts” – suspending mobile phone services in most parts of Balochistan during occasions such as celebrations marking Independence Day and Defense day. Due to the small size of the Balochistan population, such draconian measures didn’t receive widespread attention or condemnation from either the media, civil society, or organizations protecting digital rights and civil liberties. Additionally, the blackouts’ financial impact on telecom operators was low enough that they were able to easily comply with government instructions for suspending service in the entire region.
Even though the past success of such a strategy is relatively questionable, the Pakistani government took the same approach on the Eid Festival in August when mobile phone users witnessed a blackout on a greater scale affecting millions of mobile phone users in Pakistan’s major cities such as Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta. Shoppers were paralyzed, friends were disconnected, businesses were unable to order stocks on time – all of this resulting in losses while millions of people were unable to send Eid greetings to their loved ones.
One shopper termed the experience as traumatic: “We were at the same shopping mall but my wife and kids were somewhere else and we could not catch up with each other till morning”. Another local business man was furious as he was unable to contact with a manufacturer in time to order more supplies. “Eid is the only high peak business season in these distressing times and if we are unable to make money our families will starve”. Asad, a college student was fuming with the government’s decision to suspend mobile phone services this past August. “This (pointing to his iPhone) is the hub of my social life and the government has taken it away from me”. The use of mobile phones is so commonplace in Pakistan that it has become part of people lives to such an extent that they feel lost without it.
The mobile phone industry in Pakistan is already facing stiff challenges in the form of declining revenues, cut throat competition, customer retention, sim activation policies, rising operational costs and necessary investments required for rolling out 3G networks. To further frustrate the industry, the government has obscured its national security plan involving the temporary shutting down of entire networks on festivals.
According to industry estimates, the mobile phone sector incurred more than 3 billion rupees in losses after services were suspended on Eid-ul-Fitr in August with another 600 million rupees lost in September on Love Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) Day. Now the government has again announced to suspend mobile phone services in all major cities of Pakistan on Eid-ul-Azha which is to be celebrated across the country on the 27th of October 2012.
The Eid Festivals bring peak voice and sms traffic on all networks. A billion sms messages exchange traffic on networks and a 400 percent increase is seen in voice traffic. Telecom companies also need to invest in network infrastructure to cope with peak network traffic and minimize service outages along with investing in new packages and promotions to attract customers.
The recent actions in Pakistan suggest that the government may take mobile phones for granted and that concerns over internet censorship or issues with blackouts matter very little. We often forget how much these technologies have transformed and improved people’s lives for the better. Instead of further developing and promoting the mobile industry to be able to provide future 3G/4G services we are systematically pushing the industry towards its funeral. In times of great uncertainty and fear some people are constantly trying to curtail civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism. We must confute them and show them that terrorism can be stopped without giving up liberty and to sum it up in the words of Benjamin Franklin: “Nations that have traded liberty for some temporary security measures deserve neither.”
//Arzak Khan is a communication expert who researches on the marketing of Human rights, New Media, and Social Movements in the South. One part of his research focuses on understanding the role played by Information Communication Technologies in Mediatization of society and other focuses on the development of ICT infrastructure, broadband strategies and regulation of the Internet.
Keywords: Mobile Censorship, Freedom to information, Mobile telephony, blackouts, Pakistan, Mobile Industry.