ISLAMABAD, Sept 21: The violence on Friday kept the nation spellbound and hooked to their television sets but despite the rampage it was a very quiet day for many.
The reason for this was the blocked phone service. Cellphones had fallen silent across Pakistan on early Friday morning cutting off nearly half of the 100 million users from the world at the behest of the interior ministry.
Even angrier than the inconvenienced citizens were the telecom industry leaders – they claimed that the blockade across 15 cities caused a loss of over Rs450 million, as the duration of the blockade was longer than last time.
This is not the first time that cellphones services have been shut off to prevent mischief, terrorist activities and violence. On ‘Chaand Raat’ before Eidul Fitr and in Quetta on Aug 14, the ministry of interior under Rehman Malik had ordered the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to impose a similar blockade. The problems it posed for the ordinary people on Friday were no less than on other occasions.
Dr Farhana Niazi, a physician working at a leading private hospital, was on her way back home when she got caught in the middle of a small mob. Scared she pulled out her phone to call home for help but to no avail.
The 29 years old had a frightening 10 minutes till she managed to escape unhurt.
Similarly, Ghazala Saleem, a software engineer by profession, waited in her office for her father to pick her up.
“He called from home to say he was on his way but he got stuck enroute till six in the evening,” she said. Ms Saleem and her family had no idea where her father was for four hours. “My ailing mother fainted from all the worry and fear,” she added.
Countless such stories were the order of the day across the country.
But the anger in the telecom industry was no less.
“Closing down the mobile phone services is becoming an ‘extortion’ tactic of the federal government. It also shows their lack of regard for international investors and multinational companies,” asserted a senior executive vice president of a mobile phone company. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
His words were echoed by others.
“The government left over 50 million subscribers in trouble while the estimated financial loss is over Rs450 million,” said a senior official of a mobile phone company.
He added that around 100 million active users of mobile phone companies are using the Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) network across Pakistan.“ Half of these mobile users are urban; and on Friday even some rural areas were denied the service till the evening,” he said.
Even essential services suffered because of the blockade. Doctors were out of touch with hospitals on a day that expected to see more than the usual medical emergencies.
“A number of senior physicians could not be consulted on the phone and a few surgical procedures had to be delayed,” one medical officer at the Pims hospital told Dawn.
Another sector badly hit by the closure was security firms.
Major (retd) Sheryar Khan, a senior official of a private security company, told Dawn that “most of our private guards deployed at residences in different parts of city are connected through mobile phones and we found it difficult to manage routine duties and tasks.”According to the data shared by an official of a national mobile phone company the mobile phone services were down in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Rawlapindi, Peshawar, Faisalabad, Multan, Quetta, and a number of cities in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, along the Grand Trunk Road. “We started shutting down the service early Friday morning since the entire exercise takes time and it’s easier to do it at night when the phone traffic is less,” a network supervisor of one company told Dawn.
Industry insiders fear that the damage is not limited to the duration of the blockade as the frequent use of this tactic will in the long run impact profits; morale; and investor confidence.
“We are planning to approach the Chief Justice of Pakistan over the high-handedness of the federal government,” said an official of a multinational mobile company.
An industry analyst said that telecom sector’s contribution to Pakistan’s GDP declined in the financial year 2010-11 due to a drop in profits and that such measures would hit it further.
“Eventually, the government will be affected as investors will be less enthusiastic about the upcoming 3G licences auction,” he said.
What has angered the citizens and telecom officials more is that the measure did not help control the mayhem on Friday. The violence still went out of control at a number of spots in different cities.
This is why security operatives are no less disgusted with the interior ministry than the telecom officials.
One security agency official told Dawn: “Our job also became more troublesome. We could not get in touch with each other except those of us who were on wireless communication.”
He then narrated a story from Oct 12, 1999, when the military coup happened.
“The 111 Brigade had taken over the national telecommunication grid and we were considering jamming the cellphone communication also.”
But he added that the military leadership immediately realised that this would be a mistake because the officers were using mobile phones to communicate with each other as federal government installations were being secured.
“Shutting down the mobile phone service means that you are shutting your own eyes and ears. Communication is the backbone of swift intelligence operations in such crisis and rioting,” the official said.
But the question then remains – who is allowing Interior Minister Rehman Malik to get away with the same mistake again and again?