In Pakistan’s remote regions, internet blackouts push education out of reach for millions

A Pakistani student writes a sentence on a blackboard at a government school in Peshawar on Oct. 25, 2012. (AFP/File)
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Updated 18 July 2020

In Pakistan’s remote regions, internet blackouts push education out of reach for millions

  • Hundreds of students across Pakistan have protested against poor connectivity as universities move to online classes over coronavirus fears
  • 'Security concerns' often used as pretext for curtailing digital rights in remote provinces, internet advocacy groups say

PESHAWAR: As students in Pakistan’s most remote regions continue protests against connectivity problems that have hampered their ability to shift to online learning after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered universities, officials and private internet companies say ‘security concerns’ in volatile parts of the country could mean internet blackouts are here to stay. 
Since last month, hundreds of students across Pakistan have been protesting a government decision that universities hold classes online, even as poor internet services remain a major problem in many regions of the country, particularly violence- and poverty-racked Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan. 
In late February of 2017, 3G/4G mobile internet services were suspended in Kech district in Balochistan, the site of a long-running conflict between security forces and separatists. At the time, security officials cited “security reasons” for the blackout. The services remain suspended to date. 
In large swaths of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, particularly the parts that formed the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) long plagued by militancy, the government has regularly restricted access to the internet or blocked it completely for “security reasons.” Except for a few areas in Bajaur district, 3G/4G internet service is not available in the tribal areas. 
In parts of Pakistan’s mountainous far north in Gilgit-Baltistan and disputed Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK), the auction process of 3G/4G internet services has remained in limbo for years. 
Officials in Pakistan have often used ‘security’ as a pretext to curtail rights, including to the internet, rights groups say. 
Ziaullah Bangash, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister’s advisor on technology, told Arab News the provincial government was aware of the issue of connectivity and the problems this was causing students. He said Pakistan Telecommunication Company Ltd. (PTCL) had recently won a contract to lay fiber optic cables in tribal districts and work on the project would kick off soon. 
“When universities and colleges reopen in September, students will get internet at their respective educational institutions,” Bangash said, adding that infrastructure, including for 3G/4G services, was being developed in the tribal areas. 
The military’s media wing, the Inter-Service Public Relations, was asked whether internet blackouts in areas in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan, were due to "security concerns," but declined comment on the subject. 
However, a senior official who requested not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to media told Arab News that private mobile and internet service-providers were reluctant to invest in the tribal districts or parts of Balochistan because of persisting security threats in the volatile areas. 
“You saw mobile phone towers were blown up in tribal districts [by militants], triggering fear among private phone companies to invest there,” the official said. 
Khurram Mehran, a spokesperson for the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), declined comment for this piece. 
Across Pakistan, low levels of digital literacy and relatively poor network quality are major impediments to internet inclusion. Internet access stands at around 35 percent of the population, with 78 million broadband and 76 million mobile internet (3/4G) connections, according to digital rights groups. According to the Inclusive Internet Index 2020, Pakistan falls into the last quartile of index countries overall, and ranks 24th out of 26 Asian countries. Now, the coronavirus has even more profoundly exposed the digital divide.
Faizullah Faraq, a spokesperson for the chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan, acknowledged that students had held protests over low-speed internet being provided by the government-run Special Communication Organization to the region’s 1.5 million people. However, he said private Internet Service Providers were unwilling to invest in the area because of expected low revenues from such a small population.
“Chief Minister Mir Afzal Khan and other senior military officials have held sessions with male and female students of Karakoram International University, assuring them uninterrupted and high internet speed,” Faraq said. 
Nadeem Aslam, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa education secretary, told Arab News an “inclusive strategy” had been devised to provide students with uninterrupted internet supply at universities once they reopened in September.
Meanwhile, students continue to suffer. 
Muhammad Akram from the poor and remote South Waziristan tribal district was studying civil engineering at COMSATS University in Abbottabad but had to return home once universities shut down in March. Now, in order to be able to continue with online learning, he has to live at a relative’s house in Dera Ismail Khan, the nearest district to South Waziristan where the internet is available. 
“We have employed all peaceful options such as protests and sit-ins for the extension of fiber optic connectivity throughout the tribal belt but to no avail,” Akram said. 
Hameed Ullah Khan from Kohistan, a student at Khyber Medical College, complained that without uninterrupted internet, online classes were a waste of time and money: “Internet fluctuates, reconnecting and disconnecting every moment. Online classes are simply a joke with students.”
Zaffar Zahid, a student at Jhalawan Medical College Khuzdar in Balochistan, said the students of the region were going to fall behind unless authorities took action. 
“How can you take online classes in areas when sending a simple text message takes so long?” he said. “I fear students of Balochistan will miss their semesters.”
Usama Khilji, director of digital rights group Bolo Bhi, said the government held millions of dollars under the Universal Service Fund (USF) - which comprises contributions (1.5% of adjusted revenues) by all telecom operators in Pakistan - which it needed to utilize to expand internet access to underserved areas in Pakistan.
“There has been no formal reasoning for authorities’ reluctance to extend 3G/4G services in ex-FATA, Gilgit Baltistan, and Balochistan,” Khilji said. 
“There has been no conclusive evidence that internet provision impacts security,” he added. “This is unfair to millions of citizens who are discriminated by virtue of their geographical location when everyone is entitled to equal treatment and opportunities.”

Pakistan authorizes 'emergency use' of COVID-19 vaccine developed in Britain

Updated 51 min 20 sec ago

Pakistan authorizes 'emergency use' of COVID-19 vaccine developed in Britain

  • The vaccine has been approved by the British Medicine and Healthcare Product Regulatory Authority
  • Unlike the coronavirus vaccines prepared by US companies, it can also be stored in ordinary refrigerators

KARACHI: Pakistan has allowed the emergency use of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and a Swedish multinational pharma company Astrazeneca, said the prime minister’s adviser on health, Dr. Faisal Sultan, while talking to Arab News on Saturday. 

“The Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan [DRAP] has authorized the emergency use of Astrazeneca's AZD1222 to deal with COVID-19 in Pakistan,” the country’s health chief informed. 

The vaccine has also been approved by the British Medicine and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority and is said to be effective for people of all ages. 

Unlike the coronavirus vaccines prepared by some US companies, it can be easily stored in ordinary refrigerators. 

According to media reports, a Karachi-based pharmaceutical company, which has applied for registration with DRAP, will import the vaccine for the private sector, though its prices will be fixed by the government.