Another day, another cellular blackout in Pakistan

25 Jun 2014

It’s been a rough week for cellcos in Pakistan. And it’s only Wednesday.

Earlier this week, the government ordered cellcos in Islamabad and Rawalpindi to suspend mobile services in response to the arrival of Tahirul Qadri, an opposition figure who has accused the administration of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of being corrupt and anti-democratic. The cellular shutdown was part of a number of actions – to reportedly include an airport blockade and market closures – to hinder Qadri’s reported plans to fly in from Canada and stage protests against the PM.

The Interior Ministry has said it’s just taking extra security precautions, but critics accuse the government of abusing its power to stifle opposition.

According to TeleGeography, the Pakistan government has a history of shutting down mobile networks in the name of security, but despite protests by cellcos and a court order to stop frivolous shutdowns, the practice continues:

… in late 2012 the government began mass mobile blackouts in areas expecting imminent terrorist attacks. Incurring substantial losses as a result of the temporary suspensions of service, the nation’s cellcos challenged the government’s right to close down networks based on ‘vague alert[s]’, the result of which was a court ruling stating that the state must have a cogent reasons and a specific timeframe in order to instruct network operators to shut down operations. Whilst the order had little impact on the interior ministry’s frequent issuance of blackout orders, the practice slowed significantly following changes of leadership at the interior ministry and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) in early 2013.

Even if Pakistan’s mobile customers feel that network blackouts are acceptable as long it prevents terrorists from doing business (and there’s very little evidence that it does, although it does prevent victims of terrorist attacks from calling for help), it must be somewhat galling to put up with sudden and lengthy service outages when the government also imposes heavy taxes – upwards to 40% – on the very mobile services they’re denying everyone in the name of national security.

Last week, the Consumer Rights Protection Council of Pakistan (CRPC) urged the finance ministry to lower telecoms taxes. According to PakTribune, CRPC president Shakeel Baig said 80% of Pakistan's total subscriber base is already below the threshold of taxable income:

"The taxation rates, as proposed in the federal budget 2014-2015, are unjustifiable."

"The finance ministry should immediately reduce withholding tax to 5% and bring the federal excise duty to a single digit," Baig told the media.

It’s not an unreasonable request, especially if the government insists on shutting off service at a moment’s notice.

Anyway, it’s something for Pakistan’s new 4G licensees to look forward to.

Meanwhile, Newsweek Pakistan reports that Prime Minister Sharif ordered the PTA to bar SIMs from Afghanistan from roaming into Pakistan “to combat anti-state and criminal activities of terrorists based in Pakistan’s tribal areas."

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