September 04, 2022
The internet plays the most critical role in keeping the world connected and is the most essential tool of communications. It has opened up many opportunities for nations to progress into the digital world and improve the economy. It enables people to improve their quality of life and gives access to previously inaccessible things. With the growing number of internet access around the world, the number of global internet users has reached more than five billion.
Considering the growing popularity around the world as a communication tool, in 2016, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution that “declared internet access a human right” this created a series of discussions. Still, the resolution did not address governmental responsibility to provide access to all, which is why many parts of the country still lack internet access.
The people may also learn about what the government is doing via the internet. Now, even the general public is aware of the activities of political parties and government officials. It allows a company to see what the competitors are doing and launching and enables the public to criticise what the producers offer. In other words, the internet provides open access – almost without limits.
If we talk about internet penetration, it is used in two ways. Broadband and mobile internet. Most countries use these two methods while some use satellite internet in the areas where cables can’t reach. There are 4.67 billion active mobile internet users, with a 59.72% share of global online traffic, and experts forecast it to reach 5.54 billion by 2025. Still, there are countries where the access and speed of the internet are far below the average in the world, and Pakistan is one of them.
Internet in Pakistan
Pakistan first acquired internet access in the early 1990s. Currently, more than 122 million people use the internet in Pakistan, making it the sixth most populous internet country in the world. According to Pakistan Telecom Association (PTA), the country’s internet penetration rate in 2021 was more than 55%, with more than half of the population using it daily.
A new survey by Google and Karachi-based research firm Kantar found that 76% of Pakistanis living in Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad have access to information online. According to statistics, 66% of internet users in Pakistan live in urban areas, and 47% use it in rural areas. For most people, internet has become an indispensable part of their work and personal lives.
The recent rains and flash floods have wreaked an unimaginable destruction across the country. This has also resulted in breaking of fiber lines in many regions that provide Internet connection. Pakistan is a part of a consortium between 15 countries in Asia, Africa and Europe that carries telecommunications. The optical fiber submarine communications cable system starts off in Singapore in Asia and ends in France in Europe. Pakistan plays a vital role in this, as it is gets the fiber from Singapore and passes it onto France. The Internet in Pakistan is brought through the six optic fiber cables coming 30ft below the land in the sea from Karachi and to the rest of the country. The fiber-optic cables travel along highway and railway tracks to the consumer. Experts say that except for the ‘last mile’, the Internet runs mostly on optic fiber cables – particularly over long distances.
There are three big Internet Service providers Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL), Transworld and Cybernet. PTCL is the only government-backed Internet service provider and the most extensive broadband service provider in Pakistan, covering up to 85% of the land. Whereas Cybernet is part of the project PEACE cable, the initiative by China to build the Digital Silk Road. The fiber-optic cable comes from China, then connects with the PEACE cable from Karachi, and travels further to Africa and Europe.
For the mobile internet, four private mobile operators are working in the country, including PMCL (Jazz), Warid, PTML (Ufone), CMPAK (Zong), Telenor and SCO. The biggest is PMCL having 38.7% of the share.
Disruption of the internet during rains and floods
Following the monsoon rains, Pakistan is experiencing the worst flood in its history. The rains have led to flooding in both the northern and southern regions of the country. The most affected areas are Sindh, KP and Balochistan. The rains and floods have caused more than 1,000 deaths, destroyed thousands of homes, and displaced millions of people. Many casualties and calamities are being reported, and many are left with no way to call for help as they have been disconnected from the world due to the damaged internet lines.
As discussed above, the Internet throughout the country travels through the fiber-optic cables. During the rains, the streets, roads and railways were filled with water, and during the rescue efforts, the fiber-optic cables were damaged, causing countrywide connectivity issues.
“The Internet runs mostly on optic fiber cables except for the so-called ‘last mile’. These cables are laid along the highways and railways. Now, how can the cables running along survive if a bridge gets demolished by flood water or a complete section of a road/rail gets washed away? The cable operators try to connect towns and cities from more than one direction, but it becomes next to impossible in floods like the current ones. And many smaller cities and towns that do not fall on the main highways do not have multiple connections,” said Information and Communication Technology (ICT) expert Parvez Iftikhar to The Express Tribune.
The fiber-optic cables cannot be damaged by themselves, and they are either damaged during the rescue work to drain water from one area to the other. “Whenever the areas have flooded, the people and rescue team to drain water out start making ways by digging, and that is when they damage the cables. Although there is marking done on the land that is not visible during floods,” said an ICT expert.
Talking about the possibility of cables being damaged in the sea, Rida Zafar, a Network Support Engineer, said that people think sharks damage the cables in the sea, but that is not true. She said the cables are laid on the lower side of the sea bed where no fish can reach. The undersea submarine fiber-optic cables are damaged mostly by the ship anchors. “It happens when the anchor falls on the cable or slides after landing on the cable. The main fiber-optic cables from which the data travels are as thin as a hair and are protected by six layers. Only anchors can damage this,” she said.
If one fiber-optic cable is damaged, there are alternate cables from which the Internet connection is passed to the countries until the fiber is repaired.
Repairing of fiber-optic cables
Since many countries rely on Internet networks for data communication, broken undersea submarine fiber-optic cables must be repaired as soon as possible. It is impossible to detect the problem directly when a fiber-optic cable ruptures in the middle of the ocean. Therefore, when such accidents occur, the telecom operator must identify the mishap and swap out the damaged stretch for a brand-new cable.
The telecom operator first finds the damaged area by focusing on the trouble region. They achieve this by sending signal pulses through the wire from a base station at one end. The signaling site that received the data will get a pulse bounced back from the damaged area (break).
Engineers can identify the precise location of the issue by calculating the time delay from the reflected signal. The damaged underwater component is then replaced by a large ship equipped with new optic cables. The cable is then hauled onto the ship after being raised using specialised hooks (grapnels) from the ocean floor.
The damaged cables are then rejoined with a new cable, covered with a waterproof and corrosion-resistant coating, and dropped back to the ocean floor. After that, the ship transmits the data to the base stations to retest the cable. Once the test signals are received at their intended location, the work is verified, and the cable is repaired correctly. The connection is subsequently established, and the data is turned on. Depending on the number of cable breakage, the number of successful repairs, the time of day, the weather at sea, and the presence of nearby ships, the entire procedure might take up to 16 hours or longer.
For a country like Pakistan, if it is damaged in the area of Pakistan, it might take longer as the ship is called from UAE, and then the repairing is carried out.
Unlike undersea fiber-optic cables, the fiber-optic cables on the land are challenging to repair during the rains and floods, as it is not an easy task to locate and then rejoin them. In the recent rain and floods, a significant part of Sindh and Punjab saw roads being washed away or bridges collapsing, damaging the country’s fiber-optic network. Over the past three weeks, the country witnessed two internet outages, and more are expected to come soon.
The ICT expert Iftikhar said that due to extensive flooding, most of the pathways of underground cables have been submerged, as relief workers or locals try to divert floodwater by digging trenches on roads and footpaths. The PTA took action and directed PTCL to make a report on the damaged cables and declare an emergency to initiate the repair work when the incident was reported into the system.
Balochistan was the region struck most by the disruption of the internet. Since all forms of communication, as well as land and air travel routes, were cut off by the continued heavy rains, Balochistan was virtually shut off from the rest of the nation.
Rescue attempts were hampered by the city’s power outage, which also caused the internet and mobile phone services to go down. In addition, flight operations to and from Quetta Airport were halted due to the collapse of a vital railway bridge that connected the city to other areas.
PTA, in a statement, said that due to torrential rains and flash floods in Balochistan and damage to optical fiber cable, voice and data services have been impacted in Quetta, Ziarat, Khuzdar, Loralai, Pashin, Chaman, Panjgor, Zhob, Qila Saifullah and Qila Abdullah. The PTA, after days, was able to restore affected voice and data services in Balochistan.
ICT expert Iftikhar said that the reason for the region being disconnected from the country after several cables were cut told that the more dense the optic fiber network is, the better the chances that some connectivity will survive. “That is what we need to work for. But if we face these kinds of rain and floods, then nothing can stop this. However, the situation can be slightly better if we have a dense optic fiber network all over the country. If every city and town is connected from, say, six different directions, one or two may survive the onslaught,” he said.
Due to the less dense fiber-optic network in the country, if one cable is damaged, it simply cuts the connection. The same happens to the mobile internet; if the network doesn’t reach the towers, the mobile internet also suffers either low speed or no connectivity.
The speed of the internet varies from country to country. According to Ookla Speedtest, the country with the fastest average mobile internet speed is the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with a speed of 120mbps. Whereas currently, Pakistan’s average mobile internet speed is 14.33mbps, ranked 114 out of 140 counties in the world, which has climbed up by two places since last month and is ahead of Nepal (14.20mbps), Uzbekistan (13.96mbps), and India (13.41mbps). While for the broadband speed, the country with the fastest average broadband internet speed is Chile having 212.98mbps, whereas Pakistan is ranked 153 out of 182 countries with an average broadband internet speed of 9.43mbps, which has dropped by three places since last month.
Since the monsoon season started, this speed was further affected, and the netizens faced connectivity and speed issues. This was mainly due to the damaged cables in the flood areas and sometimes in the sea. There are three reasons for low speed, first is that the fiber-optic cables cross long distances but do not reach almost 90% of the mobile towers, which are then connected via microwave radios. This worked fine when the data to be transported was small. As the data consumption increases, the radios are falling short, explained ICT expert Iftikhar.
He added another reason is that the telecoms do not have enough spectrum available. “Firstly, the government has not released enough spectrum for mobile internet, and secondly, whatever has been released has been too expensive, with strict commercial terms. Apparently, the government sees the spectrum as something to earn money from, not improve the quality and speed of the internet. We have a huge amount of spectrum lying unallocated and unused. The spectrum allocated to mobile companies in Pakistan is one of the lowest in the world. More spectrum makes the job of mobile companies easier as the expense on infrastructure goes down,” he explained.
Companies’ willingness to purchase more spectrum is influenced by both the price and the business terms and conditions of the transaction. Iftikhar cited the number of years’ fees that must be paid and the interest rates associated with instalment payments as variables. However, there are situations when a cell firm is so eager for spectrum that it is willing to pay anything. In Pakistan, this has occurred more than once.
The third reason that Iftikhar stated is that Pakistan’s telecom sector is probably the highest-taxed sector. This, along with robust competition among themselves, leads to low revenues, hindering infrastructure investments.
To improve the infrastructure and make the internet reach all parts of the country, the Government of Pakistan (Ministry of Information Technology) established Universal Service Fund (USF) to spread the benefits of the telecom revolution to all corners of Pakistan. USF promotes the development of telecommunication services in un-served and under-served areas throughout the length and breadth of the country and empowers them through Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to achieve a digitally inclusive Pakistan making High-Speed Internet available and affordable for all.
Iftikhar, the former CEO of USF Pakistan, said that USF might solve this problem as they are laying more fiber-optic cables in remote areas. For some time, USF should do only this – increasing fiber-optic penetration will improve the domestic infrastructure and create fewer chances for Internet unavailability.
According to PTA, the consumer should receive 80% of the quoted internet speeds, and Pakistan’s minimum broadband internet speed should be 4Mbps (up from 256 kbps). For instance, if your connection is 10Mbps, you should always experience at least 8Mbps speed. You can formally complain to PTA about it if it is even lower.
For mobile internet, the top mobile service providers claim to offer 4G services to most users, but still, there are many areas where 2G and 3G are available. The world is moving towards 5G technology, and the 4G service in Pakistan is not fully accessible. In some parts of Islamabad, Jazz and Zong are in the pre-release stage of 5G.
The Jazz CEO, Aamir Ibrahim, informed us that around 1% to 2% of users on our network has 5G handsets. “Even if the spectrum is provided for free in Pakistan, as seen in some countries, the business case for 5G is still quite weak here. It has been around eight years since 4G was launched in Pakistan, and still, 50% of the handsets sold today are 2G. Therefore, he said, ” We need to focus on 4G for all before thinking about 5G for a few,” he said.
He added that there is much room for improvement on the 4G front, and before achieving that, we cannot indulge in a discussion about 5G. “South Korea, for instance, rolled out 5G services only when 4G penetration reached 80%. In Pakistan’s case, the figure is around 50%,” he explained.
Future of the internet in Pakistan
Although Pakistan plays a vital role in passing the fiber-optic network to the rest of the world from two directions (from Singapore and China), the domestic infrastructure still needs major improvements. The consumers in the country cannot get the average internet speed of the world, and even that is damaged during the rain and floods.
PTA and USF are working to improve the infrastructure, but it will take time for Pakistan to reach the average internet speed in the world. Till then, the users will continue to be affected.