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Ministry eager to launch mobile phone services in Fata

By Jamal Shahid 2016-09-28
ISLAMABAD: The federal government on Tuesday sought the help of armed forces and parllamentarians from Fata to gain access to the tribal regions and areas bordering Afghanistan to spread telecomunications infrastructure there.

`One of the main reasons for the widespread use of Afghan SIMs in these areas is the absence of the local mobile cellular services,` State Minister for Information Technology Anusha Rehman told the Senate committee on IT.

The committee met to discuss projects launched by the Universal Services Fund (USF) in Fata and other less-developed areas in the country.

Under the ministry of IT, the USF is mandated to connect far-flung un-served and under-served areas with telecom services both 2G and 3G.

The meeting learnt that the previous PPP government had restricted cellular companies from operating in the tribal regions.Anusha Rehman tried to convince the committee members that in the absence of local cellular services Afghan SIMs would remain in use inside Pakistan. Cellular signals spilling over to Pakistan could only be stopped by the Afghan government. According to the minister, with the new biometric system in place, it was easier to track down terrorists using local connections and bring the areas under control of the state.

An official of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) said starting cellular services in these troubled areas would serve the purpose of connecting local communities as well as help law enforcement agencies restore peace.

`Stronger signals from local companies will technically suppress weaker cellular signals spilling over from Afghanistan into Pakistan,` the official explained.

The minister briefed the meeting that the government had already awarded contracts to cellular companies to spread 2G and 3G services in Zhob, Sibi, Kalat, Khuzdar, Musakhel and Chaghi and work on the projects was in progress.

However, North and South Waziristan, Orakzai, Dera Bugti and Kohistan remain without the mobile phone services.

`The ministry has conveyed the significance of establishing telecom infrastructure in these unserved areas to the Fata secretariat as well as the armed forces and is awaiting their response,` saidMs Rehman, who seemed adamant on launching the projects in these areas by January, 2018.

The CEO of the USF, Faisal Sattar, informed the meeting that conflicts in these areas as well as along the Afghan border had displaced communities. Fresh surveys would be needed to ascertain telecom requirements in these areas, he added.

Poor security situation in the tribal regions was one of Ms Rehman`s concerns. She also complained how local influential people were dictating her ministry to install telecom towers on their lands and properties to earn rents.

`Two Ufone telecom towers have been blown up in Harnal, Balochistan, by tribal leaders because the ministry did not oblige them. The ministry is not in tower giving business and cannot install the Base Transceiver Stations (BTS) according to whims and wishes of influential locals,` she said.

The meeting was informed that the USF had currently Rs60 billion in public accounts. This fund can only be used to spread telephony in farflung un-served and under-served areas. Since 2013, the government has released more than Rs13 billion, out of which over Rs11 billion disbursed for development of telecom infrastructure. The government plans to commit Rs50 billion from the fund by 2018 to connect most parts of the country with 2G and 3G services.