ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court was baffled to learn on Wednesday that the entire telecommunication sector in the country was running unbridled and without effective regulation because the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority was virtually non-existent.
Not only the post of PTA chairman has been lying vacant since February but important posts of its three members have also not been filled. As a result, the government’s priority agenda of introducing the third generation cellular phone networks has hit the snag.
In his budget speech on June 12, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar had claimed that the government was expecting Rs120 billion from the proposed sale of 3G licences.
The 3G technology operates at a higher frequency, larger channel bandwidth and supports very fast data transfer up to two mega bites per second.
The disturbing news about the dormant PTA was disclosed before a three-judge bench hearing a petition seeking an early auction of 3G licences.
Petitioner Khurram Shehzad Chughtai, who has 10 years of experience in information technology and telephony sectors, said the auction should be held within 60 days in a transparent manner and its proceeds deposited in the federal treasury.
The petition put the total tele-density in the country at 72 per cent, with cellular subscribers reaching 120 million and broadband subscribers crossing the figure of two million by the end of June this year. Telecom revenues have crossed Rs410 billion.
“It is the fundamental right of citizens to have latest mode of communication,” Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry observed. He said the introduction of 3G technology would also generate revenue for the country.
The court regretted the IT ministry was yet to submit a reply explaining reasons why the chairman and members of PTA had not been appointed.
Advocate Ali Raza, representing the petitioner, said the PTA had been non-functional and its office closed for all intent and purposes. A staggering amount of Rs42bn in the Universal Service Fund, an exclusive fund reserved for investment in the telecommunication sector, has been transferred to some other heads by the government last month through an executive order. “This fund cannot be used other than the telecommunication sector,” the counsel argued.
He said the auction for 3G licences had been postponed indefinitely and the process was getting more complicated. In the absence of the chairman, PTA’s budget has lapsed and there is no money even to pay salary of its staff.
The counsel said the process of appointment of PTA chairman had been initiated in January and even advertisements were issued in the print media, but it was challenged in the Islamabad High Court. Similarly, a petition was filed in the Lahore High Court on June 14 by one of the holders of telecom licence and the case is pending there.
Since the counsel was not sure whether any stay order had been issued by the high court, the Supreme Court asked its office to contact the LHC registrar to inquire about the status of the case.
The attorney general’s office has been asked to get instructions from the cabinet and the IT ministry about the appointment of chairman and members of the PTA and the steps being taken by the government for the auction of 3G licences.
Referring to the USF fund, the court asked the petitioner’s counsel to submit a proper application. The court observed that the fund could not be utilised by the government for any other purpose through an executive order. “The government has to offer an explanation.”
The court issued a notice to finance secretary and asked him to furnish a justification after which an appropriate order would be issued.
The case will be taken up on Thursday.