Development

Cellular Services in North Waziristan

North Waziristan. What comes to your mind when you think about this place? A war-ridden area where terrorists roam freely? Yes, it was true until Pakistan Armed Forces had not cleaned it up.
Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which resulted in peace after battling against the terrorists for years, today present an all-new Waziristan to the world.
At the heart of Waziristan’s Miranshah area, new shops are opening, and some old ones are getting renovated. Inspired by the boom in tech business elsewhere in the country, few of the businessmen wish to put on display the latest mobile phones with the hope that cellular signals will soon replace the sounds of bullets in the air and businesses will boom owing to greater connectivity.
“A number of businessmen have contacted us from North Waziristan who intend to be partners with us as a part of their plan to purchase cellphone stock soon after the cellular services start in the area,” confirmed an official of a leading mobile phone manufacturer.
The cellular services, if any were there, were shut down in the Waziristan area when Pakistan Armed Forces launched an offensive against the militants. While the rest of the country had embraced 3G and 4G technology back in 2014, the security situation did not allow North Waziristan to become a part of this technological revolution with the connectivity remaining limited to 2G services.
As of now, what started five years ago in 2014 has multiplied the benefits of technology evolution and led Pakistan to achieve 155 million cellular subscribers among whom nearly 63 million make use of mobile broadband through 3G/4G services. So far, Pakistan has bagged 74.48% teledensity, and it is because of the unserved areas across the country (regions like North Waziristan) that we have yet to go beyond 90% teledensity threshold.
The truth is, no one could have thought about deploying and selling technology among the ferocious warlords. The sacrifice of thousands of our soldiers has brought to life near normalcy in the Waziristan area. And now, after the operation, the Armed Forces have abolished the registration process at the checkpoints as this is no longer a requirement. Sunday curfew in North Waziristan has been lifted after 14 years with there being no threat to life. Intrusion from across the border has also declined steeply following border fencing that the army has undertaken.
A group of national and foreign journalists recently visited North Waziristan and witnessed the desire and urge in the locals to move forward in life.
Standing fearlessly at the Pak-Afghan border, these journalists could see the rubbles of a madrassa, once a stronghold and the headquarters of notorious Haqqani Network and the only remainder of the militant group’s presence. 
The newly built commercial complex in Miranshah by 45 Engineer Division of Pakistan Army is the testament that efforts are underway to roll out business activities in the region which will not only give hope of a better future to the youngsters but also revive economic activity in the area.
However, unless this region becomes a part of the technology bandwagon, no economic plan can bear fruit. For making this possible, the Universal Service Fund (USF) has the mandate to secure funds for digitizing the unserved and underserved areas in the country. USF has recently awarded a contract of worth Rs. 192 million to Jazz for laying down telecom infrastructure in the North Waziristan region. Under this partnership with USF, Jazz will deploy the infrastructure, as it hopes to cover the entire North Waziristan by the end of 2019. “At the moment, Jazz is not ‘on air’ in North Waziristan, but we have received the approval to activate in some areas of North Waziristan and will be launching the services as soon as the on-ground survey and profiling is completed,” a Jazz spokesperson responded to a query. 
Pakistan’s largest cellular operator is hoping high to provide cellular and broadband services to nearly 0.57 million population of North Waziristan that will eventually pave way for the digitization of the entire region.
This could trigger an era of socio-economic boom which is practically impossible in today’s world without the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure.
Parvez Iftikhar, former CEO of USF and an ICT consultant in Asia and Africa, is of the view that the approach adopted by the government is quite excellent. However, there should be demand stimulating programs and deep fiberization – optic fibers going deep into rural areas – as this will increase the digital footprint hence bringing onboard more people to connect with the national grid.
The opportunities and potential in North Waziristan is huge. It could become a part of the tourism drive that Prime Minister Imran Khan wishes to launch across the country. KP government is already considering a Rs. 70 billion project to layout a road network of 750 miles for connecting the area to the rest of the country through high-speed highways which could become the means to boost tourism in the region. By creating tourism spots and with the help of ICT, the government can raise billions from North Waziristan alone. In addition, agriculture, trade, mining, education, health, banking, and many more areas can be uplifted with the help of cellular and broadband services in North Waziristan.
Cellular operators have already proven to be the game changer in Pakistan by either providing services directly or acting as the enabler for changing the economic conditions of millions of Pakistanis. Programs like distance education and telehealth are only possible on a high-speed broadband network, and North Waziristan can take advantage of this tech evolution.
Studies show that former FATA areas are the most suitable for olive plantation in Pakistan as 45% of the land supports this drought tolerant plant. The government is already in the process of importing more than 500,000 such plants from Saudi Arabia and UAE. Similarly, copper, manganese, chromite and gold reserves can attract giants into the region. Technology can open international markets for them and create a unique place for it on the economic map.
Pakistan is the fourth most popular country for freelancing in the world where 1.15 million Pakistanis with the help of ICT skills earn around a billion dollars from outsourced jobs. People of North Waziristan can become a part of this business stream that will further swell the bulge and help modernize the entire society.
Only when the networks are enabled will investment opportunities open for North Waziristan. Incubators like PlanX, Nest I/O and National Incubation Center (NIC) will open their campuses for the young and dynamic human resource of the North Waziristan region.
Pakistan imports quarter to half a million smartphones every month, a figure that will grow manifold when the unserved areas like North Waziristan start adopting such devices. In January 2019 alone, the mobile phone import bill reached $ 59.7 million.
The fruits of service connectivity are not limited to the economic uplift, the security situation will also strengthen as a result. Networks will allow monitoring devices to work more efficiently leaving lesser requirement for on-ground personnel. 
The length and breadth of expected benefits can be overwhelming; however, the results cannot be achieved overnight. On the ground, the reality seems a little harsh. There are challenges of various kinds which, if not handled properly, can shatter the dream before it starts to come true.
Extreme measures and extraordinary focus is the need of the hour from all the stakeholders involved. There are concerns among the local populace and the outsiders regarding the security situation. “Real challenges are indeed security related. Although peace has returned, there still are concerns about people going there. Security services are also keen not to give a chance to the negative elements to create any trouble, so they are also rather strict regarding personal security issues. Commercially and operationally there are not very big issues – not bigger than in any other USF area”, Mr. Iftikhar further commented.
For erecting networks, it is always cost-effective to hire human resource and labor from the local area, but in the case of North Waziristan, the absence of any prior network will require the team of non-locals to work in the unknown territory. “For us, the challenge would be access, security concerns, traveling during odd timings, and higher construction cost. However, Jazz has taken things proactively. We will work in coordination with concerned law enforcement agencies on difficult terrains and to provide security,” Jazz spokesperson added.
How good would a network be when it is silent most of the time? For the region to have sustained growth, there would be a need to keep systems alive throughout the year.
For a cellular operator, the biggest concern at the moment is the ban on data services and their availability in the area, which affects the commercial gains of the operators. Moreover, due to non-availability and long duration of power outages the operational costs of the cell sites increases. Furthermore, due to security concerns, there are also some operational challenges for field management activities. 
These issues, when combined, result in hampering the growth of telecommunication services and hence it generates the least interest from the investor.
These concerns demand continuous monitoring. Governments, security, and political forces and the local administration must make things favorable to ensure that the telecom networks are laid down and operate efficiently.
Initially, it will be a Jazz exclusive, but at a later stage the principles of economics must allow other operators to work in the area for bringing diversity in the service quality and cost effectiveness. 
“It mainly depends on the possibility of tower strength and commercial arrangements. Initially, it will only be Jazz, and at the later stage Jazz will consider sharing towers with other operators willing to provide service in the areas”, Jazz spokesperson explained.
Today, the whole world is welcoming 5G technology which will revolutionize the lives of billions of people on the planet. A new era of technological advancement is going to be unfolded for mankind where IoT devices will bring ease, comfort, and productivity in every field of life.
Pakistan will also undergo a 5G test in the coming years. Despite our slow pace, time and opportunity is still in our hands. Right policies, timely activation of services and consistent running of telecom networks will let us enjoy the benefits of ICT infrastructure.


The writer is a technology journalist and Editor-in-Chief of More Magazine and Outlook Pakistan.
E-mail: [email protected]

 

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