A. M. Khan
Grappling with internet inevitability in Chitral during the Covid-19 pandemic was uncommon, particularly among young people enrolled in higher educational institutions of Pakistan. The state of internet service and coverage in Lower Chitral was, however, quite better than in Upper Chitral but the only constraint was its limited coverage.
Once upon a time in Chitral, and elsewhere too, people used to send their verbal messages or messengers to their targeted audience whether they were families, relatives, power centers, competing princes, businesses or the rulers of mountain communities. Correspondence proceeded when education started spreading among the people.
As modern means of communication in Chitral, PTCL landline connections are available in specific places such as Booni, Mastuj, Warijun, Torikhov and Reshun. The introduction of wireless system of communication in 2005 transformed the communication infrastructure in Chitral. PTCL had partnered with Huawei and was the main company along ZTE in providing the demand of wireless telephones to the people across Chitral.
The communication ecosystem dramatically transformed when most of the people of Chitral got connected with their families and relatives across the world by wireless telephones. It did set a bar on correspondence used to be the vehicle of erstwhile mode of communication. The mobile networks even preceded wireless telephone networks, in some places, were limited in Booni and Mastuj in Upper Chitral for quite long, are now available everywhere, with a few exceptions.
The transition, soon after telephone connectivity, was the need of internet data and continued to be felt in people who had either been connected or required to be connected for a variety of reasons. This was the beginning of necessity of internet as a facility was felt, which UN declares as a right. People had internet connections in Booni, and later wireless phones were used for internet in homes and offices in Upper Chitral. One can easily imagine the nature of internet available via wireless connection in Chitral in 2006. Given the bandwidth limitations of this network it was initially quite better to open webpages of newspapers and magazines.
It was the beginning of data service the wireless communications had started to local consumers in Chitral. Initially, there were two hours’ data package for 10 rupees every day, and later it was for an hour. The nature of service at that time was quite better till the number of consumers increased to its limited bandwidth, I remember to get connected on late nights.
Typically, user’s access with the outer world of connectivity can be grouped into: a client, a connection and a server, requires a digital ecosystem configuring this system in which clients to have a personal computer or mobile phone, a connection requires hardware and software for access, and the server which provides for what today is called the Connectivity4All.
The half population of the world remains offline or unconnected in the digital ecosystem sets the challenge of connectivity a way to reaching out and keep them informed in making decisions, bringing down costs of transactions and increasing connections. There are some countries, nations, and communities that are passionate about connectivity, its impact on transformation of life experiences and nature of work can be delivered in the digital age. And some countries so far have made great strides to bridge the digital divide in the world.
In Chitral, the digital divide, the need and importance of digital infrastructure was felt so strongly when universities and colleges started online classes in June 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic. The demand, more often than not, had already received a momentum from young generation that connectivity is a pressing requirement for them. A protest in Garam Chashma, Bang and other parts of Upper and Lower Chitral started where hundreds of young people participated. Unlike students, elders from Mastuj, Laspur and Yarkhun also gathered demanding internet facility for their children so they could continue their education online.
Besides education and harnessing the digital economy, connectivity for all helps learning essential transferable in-demand skills, which employers are seeking, and fill the gaps in individual skill set.
To highlight the problem of connectivity and reaching out to a wider audience, like Gilgit-Baltistan, a hashtag #Internet4Chitral made rounds on social media. When the government announced plans to open educational institutions (in shifts) in September, businesses and other services this demand lost its luster. We are, however, back to a new normal experiencing our lives and the exigencies of data infrastructure continues unabated.
Debating the socioeconomic development in Chitral people seldom refer to the phenomenon of rural-urban divide now in spite of it is digital divide hindering connectivity in the digital ecosystem. Pakistan ranks at 76 out of 100 in the ranking for digital inclusivity. According to PTA, 39 percent of the population has access to fixed broadband and mobile internet. The World Bank data, however, shows Pakistan has fared worse than other countries in expanding its internet infrastructure over the years.
The slogan ‘connectivity for all’ is what needed to be done for internet economy in terms of investing in digital infrastructure, cost and benefits, regulating the environment—challenging although, ensuring transparency, broadband monopoly, and bringing down powers obstacles to bridge the global digital divide. It is also about investment in which partnership is being appreciated in digital connectivity initiatives by different entities i.e. World Bank. There are entrepreneurs for investment and startups for a sustainable and inclusive digital economy, World Bank predicates, to flourish in which the role of either public or private sector is crucial.
As envisioned, at the heart of connectivity, it is giving people the power to build community and bringing the world closer together. While giving them voice and creating opportunities to share knowledge wherein lies the challenges of connectivity, affordability and relevance in which 4G mobile connection has happened to be the minimum threshold that gives the speed required to experience what consumers want.
This is how connectivity is a catalyst for growth in the economy since there are economic barriers, social obstacles and lack of infrastructure of wires, waves and technology. Central to the basic idea that an individual is a unit of a society apart from its physical presence there are ideas, convictions, and the will in which the concept of connectivity requires the ability to communicate with others through digital platforms.
The districts of Chitral currently have, rather happened to be, enclosures where one can access data networks in which PTCL and mobile networks provide this facility. PTCL operates with DSL service in Drosh, Chitral Town, Garam Chashma and Booni while mobile networks provide either 3G/4G in Drosh, Ayun, Chitral Town, Garam Chashma, Barenis, Loan, and village Reshun in upper Chitral, and the rest of the population doesn’t share data network coverage with these areas are part of digitally divided population in the world.
The place of digital economy does not afford a notch below in the age of information and technology in which connectivity and data matters something inevitable for communications and giving people the power to build community and bringing the world closer together. Connectivity gives them voice and creating opportunities, to share knowledge and ideas depending on the minimum threshold requires to experience what the people of Chitral also want in their daily lives.
(The writer is a researcher based in Chitral. He tweets @AMKhan9).