Call for access to quality, affordable internet amid Covid-19 outbreak

Updated April 01, 2020

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Rights groups ask govt to bridge digital divide. — Getty Images/File
Rights groups ask govt to bridge digital divide. — Getty Images/File

KARACHI: In light of the rapid shift to digital services during the Covid-19 outbreak, the telecom industry, rights groups as well as students have urged the government to ensure access to quality and affordable internet for all.

For the past week, students from tribal areas and Balochistan have voiced their concern over lack of access to internet during the Covid-19 outbreak under various Twitter trends such as #Enable3G4GInExFATA and #SuspendOnlineClasses.

Hundreds of students and faculty members of different varsities have also lodged complaints on the prime minister’s portal with regard to online teaching system’s quality of instruction, digital readiness of the instructor and poor internet connectivity.

“Almost 50+ students of the Univer­sity of Management and Technology (UMT) in Lahore are from Chitral and all of them are facing internet issue. Most of us have not attended a single online class because there are no mobile signals in the area,” Fahad Ahmad, a student with multiple distinctions, told Dawn.

“We have to travel for two to three hours on a daily basis just to attend class. Students are spending 500 rupees or even more just for petrol for their vehicle. If we estimate this amount it almost equals to our university fee,” he said.

Rights groups ask govt to bridge digital divide

Students shared multiple video clips to show how they were attending online classes while sitting on a roadside or an open space to get strong mobile signals.

The problem is not limited to access but also affordability of internet.

“In university, due to the availability of free Wi-Fi and computers, it is easy for me to complete my assignments. I use an internet package of Rs6 per day with 500MBs for social media and 50MBs of data for browsing. This is not enough to attend online classes,” said Sheeraz, a student of Dow University.

In a notification issued on Monday, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) asked all varsities that were not ready for online instructions on account of different limitations (technological, technical or spatial) to plan, acquire, train, and equip themselves to execute online teaching from June 1.

The HEC noted that around 30 per cent of all complaints were related to poor connectivity issues which hampered participation in online classes. This was especially the case with students living in remote areas, particularly the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), parts of Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).

In a tweet, Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood said a TV channel would be launched in early April with lessons for schoolchildren.

‘Not permitted to provide data’

Last year, the Universal Service Fund (USF) awarded a contract worth Rs258 million to Jazz for deploying broadband services in North Waziristan tribal district and also for taking mobile broadband access to the people in frontier regions of Bannu and Lakki Marwat.

“As a USF service provider, Jazz is committed to providing efficient connectivity to underserved or unserved areas. However, presently, force majeure applies to the Waziristan region. Telecom companies are not permitted to provide data services due to security concerns at present,” said a Jazz spokesperson.

Speaking to Dawn, a telecom industry source said: “The people of AJK and GB have a right to meaningful digital services and solutions that can address social, economic and environmental problems and close the inequality gap. We believe that the people of AJK and GB are deprived of 3G/4G service that is essential in bridging digital divide and opening up access to essential digital services such as e-health and e-education, to name a few.”

“Mobile internet is playing a key role in helping people deal with Covid-19 related shutdowns. Now more than ever before, the people of AJK and GB need these services as much as their fellow citizens in the rest of the country,” the source said.

Rights groups urge govt to act

In a joint statement released by the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) and Bolo Bhi on Tuesday, the rights groups urged the government to bridge the digital divide, as people across the country, including in remote areas, required a working internet connection to send and receive vital information during the Covid-19 outbreak.

As the government used mobile-based applications to disseminate information about the virus and distribute ration, the most marginalised would be left behind, the statement said.

While financial institutions were making their internet banking more accessible and waiving transfer charges, those who relied on cash transfer services such as Easypaisa were unable to access them due to closure of shops and social distancing practices, it added.

“Due to no internet in most rural parts of Pakistan, people are unaware of Covid-19 and what to do to protect themselves. Internet access [for all] is the need of the hour for better communication and awareness,” the groups said.

The groups demanded that educational institutions cancel all online classes till physical lessons are possible.

They also called for an immediate end to the mobile internet shutdown imposed in ex-Fata territories and parts of Balochistan. For communities that lack infrastructural access to internet, they urged the government to provide tools and information about setting up community inter and intranet systems to ensure access on an emergency basis.

Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2020