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Cellular service outages: Combating terrorism, one network at a time
[January 04, 2013]

Cellular service outages: Combating terrorism, one network at a time

(Express Tribune (Pakistan) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Even as the world becomes increasingly reliant on technology to help curb terrorist threats, the Pakistan government continues to suspend mobile telecommunication services as its counterterrorism ‘strategy’ of choice. With the telecom industry choosing to remain quietly compliant and disregarding the IT ministry’s voice of sanity, the government successfully set the nation’s evolutionary clock back by a couple of decades once again on Thursday.

Mobile services were suspended in 45 cities of the country for a period stretching more than 12 hours - starting from eight in the morning - on account of ‘security measures’ taken in preparation for Hazrat Imam Hussain’s chehlum.

As always, cellular mobile operators (CMOs) quietly complied with the directives issued by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, which in turn was only implementing the interior ministry’s diktat.

Thursday’s outages, according to industry sources, have been the worst-ever so far, affecting around 80% of a total consumer base of 96 million subscribers, reports ProPakistani - an Islamabad-based blog that covers the IT and telecom industry. The industry will bear an estimated Rs800 million in losses for Thursday’s service suspension, while the government will forego Rs250 million in tax revenues, it said.

The Express Tribune had recently raised the issue of cellular outages with the top management of several CMOs. “It is a matter of national security: there is no compromise on that, and we have to comply with orders,” was what Mobilink’s Marketing Strategy and Planning Director Fareed Ahmed said during an interview with The Express Tribune.

The interior ministry has recently come down hard on telecom operators “in order to minimise terrorism threats”. It recently banned the selling of SIM cards through retail outlets and has periodically suspended mobile services on various occasions. These extreme measures, coupled with the country’s telecom regulator’s failure to auction the 3G spectrum licence successfully, have had a far from soothing affect on investors abroad.

“Uncertainty is something the investors do not feel happy about,” Telenor’s Chief Marketing Officer and Vice President Commercial Division Amir Ibrahim was blunt while explaining how investors at Telenor’s holding company are viewing the Pakistani telecom industry. “Such measures impact all CMOs at the holding company’s level,” echoed Zong CEO Fan Yunjun.

But even as CMOs express reservations regarding mobile outages, none of them are willing to confirm if they will take recourse to legal options. The Pakistani Telecommunication Re-organisation Act, according to an official, allows mobile operators to claim lost revenues from the government if their rights are suppressed. The government, which is stuck with an erratic balance of payments situation, cannot afford to compensate telecom companies and may back off on the issue, he speculated.

Meanwhile, the IT ministry which opposes service outages also remains unheard on the issue.

“The Ministry of Interior never took us on board while taking such decisions,” Prime Minister’s Adviser on IT Dr Basit Riaz Shaikh told The Express Tribune recently. “I have opposed this extreme action repeatedly in past meetings,” he added.

The IT adviser believes that the use of technology is vital in the fight against terrorism. Citing the 2012 London Olympics, Shaikh said they are a case study in how security agencies use technology against potential threats and are successful in curbing any untoward incident. “Osama Bin Laden’s hunt is another example of how telecommunication technology has helped trace the world’s most wanted terrorist,” he pointed out.

“If we really want to stop terrorism, we have to go to its roots,” Shaikh observed. “Otherwise, people should expect a ban on jackets, motorcycles and cars, because they may be used for explosions,” he added acerbically.

“Unfortunately, emotions prevail in this country but logic doesn’t.”

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