“Haan internet affordable hou tou kyun nai ziada istemal karay gein? Zaroor karay gein.” [Yes, why wouldn’t we use the internet if it was more affordable? Of course we will], says 36-year-old Mazhar from Bakote, Abbottabad.
He slips in this information as we discuss the kind of internet he accesses and its increased usage in the last two years. Mazhar works at a canteen in a university in Islamabad while his wife lives in his ancestral town in Abbottabad. He believes that technology plays a vital role in our lives and must be consumed by a significant majority; if only it was more accessible and affordable. He uses Facebook and WhatsApp regularly, but only while he is at work where he uses the university WiFi, or at his small rented flat where he lives with his children in Islamabad. Once he is back home in Abbottabad, he loses the connection to the internet, and to this world. Mazhar had to bring his children to Islamabad to live with him during the COVID-19 lockdown so they could continue to attend online classes, something that they were not able to do in Bakote.
Perhaps one of the most significant trends of this century is the importance of establishing communication through the internet. The need for a stable internet connection was only acknowledged in Pakistan after an unprecedented pandemic which shifted the entire global infrastructure, when everything – from schools to employment, went online. Anyone without a proper internet connection was practically handicapped. According to a press release issued by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) in March 2020, internet usage in Pakistan increased by around 15 percent with the imposition of lockdown and industries shifting online. The Government of Pakistan ordered a nationwide lockdown to combat coronavirus at the end of March 2020, and in a matter of days, a spike in internet usage was recorded by PTA. Digital transformation in the country moved up the timeline owing to the virus. From individuals to corporations to government bodies – the pandemic fundamentally altered the modus operandi at all levels. Measures against COVID-19 such as social distancing, national lockdowns, restricted travel, and quarantines stipulated organisations to drive towards innovative solutions to keep the social, political, and economic wheels churning. The press release further stated that the country is well equipped to cater to the needs of internet users, but the current situation depicts otherwise.
PTA’s statement and Mazhar’s access to the internet in Bakote are contradictory. According to Mazhar, “There is no system for WiFi back home. Mobile data is available but not 3G/4G. We only have access to 2G which doesn’t work anyway.” He wants to get an internet connection at home to stay connected to his wife, but owing to its inaccessibility in his hometown, he is unable to. With the spread of the pandemic, Mazhar had to shift his children and sister to Islamabad so they could continue attending school. At his apartment in Islamabad, Mazhar pays around Rs 1800 per month for internet which, he says, is expensive for him.
Mazhar’s struggle to afford the internet is not unique, but in fact, is a shared experience of many around him. 36-year-old Abbas from Mirpur, Azad Kashmir, pays around Rs 3000 per month for unlimited browsing, so his family can continue to avail internet services, despite its poor quality. Abbas works alongside Mazhar and is an avid user of the internet. While his work does not require him to rely on the internet so much, he uses WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram for entertainment and basic communication. He feels that a good internet connection is a must-have, especially to unwind after a long day of hard work, but with the current rates, it may get difficult for him to use it consistently in the long run.
When universities were shut down during the nationwide lockdown, canteen salesmen, photocopiers, guards, and other support staff had to bear the brunt of the economic crisis. As the campus closed, Abbas had to go back to his hometown without knowing when he would have to return. His major income comes from the canteen and with that source cut off, he found it extremely difficult to continue using the internet.
Mazhar and Abbas’ experiences with the internet, along with the observation of how it became a necessity for everyone during the pandemic, indicate that the use of the internet has become crucial for people belonging to almost all socioeconomic classes. However, the difference is that while one community may not consider access to the internet a big deal given the readily available access to them, others have to work day and night to ensure that their family is not deprived of this necessity, like Mazhar and Abbas. The internet, despite being a commodity, continues to be a luxury for the masses, leading to widening the already big digital divide amongst different socioeconomic classes in the country. Result is an evident difference in the kind of content that goes online: who gets to create it and who gets to access it.
The framework of Meaningful Connectivity, introduced by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) that works at an international level to advocate for affordable internet for everyone, lists that a “consistent use” of the internet, on an “appropriate device”, with “affordable” and a “good quality” internet connection is necessary for all. For the internet to be meaningful, it has to check all four characteristics.
In 2019, a UK-based company carried out research that revealed that Pakistan had the second most expensive mobile data rates in South Asia. The study showed that 1GB of data’s approximate cost was $1.85 at the time. Currently, in Pakistan, the lowest average monthly cost of mobile data is Rs 234.5 for an average of 3.5GB of data, which is barely enough for a household. When it comes to community broadband networks, they too cost generally around Rs 600-800 with extremely poor quality. As for monthly broadband packages used by most households and offices, the average price is Rs 1208 for the lowest megabits per second (Mbps) package.
Technology has drastically improved and eased the lives of citizens across the spectrum and industries. With WhatsApp, they stay connected with their families, while with Facebook, they stay connected with friends scattered across the world. Even when the internet is a burden on finances for many people from the working-class community, they feel that it is a necessity that they will continue to have to pay for. For instance, Mazhar believes that when the pandemic is over, and his children are no longer required to attend online schools, he will likely disconnect the internet connection from his home in Islamabad, saving up that particular monthly cost. He adds that his own utility for the internet is low and he can survive without WhatsApp and Facebook – perhaps because he is comfortable using GSM phone calls for communicating back home.
Internet Accessibility and Gender
However, while men seem to have avenues and resources to connect to the internet when they feel the need to, women on the other hand struggle with lack of digital literacy on top of economic and infrastructural barriers.
For example, Mazhar’s wife who lives in Bakote, has little to no exposure to the internet, owing to inaccessibility and lack of appropriate infrastructure. While he thinks that there is no harm with women being on the internet, he limits this opinion when it comes to his wife. He says, What does she know of the internet, what would the poor thing do [online]?”
However, a restriction for Mazhar’s wife is not just on the basis of her own inability to use the internet, but house rules that Mazhar has imposed. No one, especially the wife, can use the internet or mobile phone, until and unless all the domestic work is completed. He does, however, help her with domestic chores, but is not an advocate for her spending much time on the internet, unless it is absolutely necessary for communication or emergencies.
Women’s access to the internet in many communities is heavily dependent on the permissions from the patriarchs or the head of the family, who in most cases happen to be men. Arooj Aurangzeb, a political worker from Lahore, narrated her experience of interviewing a girl for her article for DRM regarding how women’s access to the internet is more than just having a device. She writes, “The call [with the girl] was short, in secrecy, interrupted by bad signals, and it ended when she was signaled by her younger sister on the look-out, that her mother might be approaching. This is reflective of how a lot of women end up conducting conversations on their phones, with look-outs in place due to the complete lack of privacy.” This lack of privacy within households, along with the general perception that women do not need internet or digital access, which comes with the controlled access to resources including financial and device access, determine the ever-increasing digital divide and women’s presence on the internet.
But for Mazhar, access to the internet should not just be determined by gender, but by one’s educational background. He says, “People like us should not have access to the internet, be it a girl or a boy. It should only be available for those who have graduated , those who are educated.” Mazhar’s otherisation of his own community seems to be based on his apprehension of not knowing how to use digital platforms rather than controlling women’s access. For him, if the internet access is available for men in one household, it is available to women as well.
This is, however, not a common experience of women in Pakistan. To study the impact of gender gap in internet usage, Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) conducted a study titled “Women Disconnected” in 2020 where they found that “six in ten women internet users who took part in a study face some kind of restriction from their families when using the internet.” 16 percent of the survey respondents said that girls are not allowed to use the internet at all.
Kulsoom, a 23-year-old woman from Kohala Bala district of Abbottabad, believes that men have more open and easy access to the internet than women. She uses social media through mobile data, as the infrastructure for WiFi does not exist in Kohala Bala either. Kulsoom subscribes to Zong 4G’s Super Weekly Premium package where she gets 30GB of data for a week for Rs 350, only when her son has to use YouTube and play PUBG, or when she feels like using the social media apps. Her husband, who lives in Islamabad, is connected to the internet at all times because of better accessibility. Similarly, her brother who lives nearby uses the internet more than she does and invests a significant amount of money and time in maintaining his access. For Kulsoom, there is an evident contrast in the way she accesses the internet compared to how men in her family do. According to her, even her son has more open access to the internet than she does as she has to constantly think about saving the data for her son or for when she has to speak to her husband.
But even here, the experiences and norms of some households defer from what research and majority experiences dictate. For instance, AD, a 34-year-old man from Kuri, a village in Islamabad currently working as a support staff member in an office, says that while the affordability of the internet is an issue for him, there is no gender-based discrimination in his house when it comes to accessibility. He says, “If there is the internet, then it is for everyone. For both men and women, access is the same.” At home, he uses Nova’s WiFi for which he pays Rs 800 for 4Mb speed and unlimited browsing.
He had to install WiFi at his home during the COVID-19 lockdown as classes went online, and his wife who teaches Quran to kids online, and his children had to use the internet to attend classes. He claims that there are no restrictions imposed on his wife as far as the usage of the internet is concerned. The two of them have divided household chores with each other and use the internet for work, communication and entertainment, like watching movies, together. The couple tries to avoid surfing on the internet or playing games in front of their children so they do not get distracted from studies, but he says that these are just disciplinary restrictions that they have agreed on that are not determined by the gender of the family members but are consistent for everyone.
The only concern that AD has with his internet access is paying Rs 800 for an average quality connection that is also unreliable. He thinks that he has no other option because those that are good quality are more expensive than this one that he cannot afford to have. He believes that the internet is a necessity and having some kind of access is better than having none. He firmly believes he would switch to an alternative setup if only he could receive cheaper and better quality internet.
Meaningful Internet Connection
All of the people interviewed for this article said that their access to the internet is only through their smartphone, and they do not own any other device like a laptop or computer. Mazhar says, “I had to get a laptop for my children but the rates are so high that someone like me cannot even begin to fathom the inflation in our country. Technology has become a need for everyone in this country, but this country fails to provide adequate resources to make use of it.” In December 2021, reports of the government’s proposal to increase tax on laptops and computers in the country started circulating, which, if passed, would have made these devices further out of reach for the masses. The proposal, as part of the Supplementary Finance Bill, was discarded, but another 17 percent tax on mobile phones was imposed in January 2022, making the primary device to access the internet for the working class more expensive, and hence out of reach.
Owing to the constantly increasing prices of necessities in the country, Mazhar plans to disconnect the internet from his flat in Islamabad once online classes are over and his kids return to physical schools. He believes that it is simply not affordable and he sees no sense in giving so much money for a poor quality service. “I wish things were different and I could say that I would continue using the internet once the pandemic is over, but it is what it is. You have to pick and choose the facilities you want in your life, and for me, the internet is still a [luxury] rather than a need.” Mazhar hopes the internet remains a “want” for him because, with the current situation, it seems impossible for him to continue its usage in the long run.
Abbas says that while mobile phone services are offered in his area, which helps him access the internet as well, these services are of extremely poor quality in far-flung areas. He believes that the telecom operators work unfairly; they make promises of “super speed” internet all across the country but it is only the people who live there who know how “super” the speed is.
With the spread of COVID-19, a lot of people from the working-class communities lost their jobs. It was the same time when Pakistan was on the road to creating a digital economy, and the need for internet connections and digital devices rose. These communities were expected to not only have stable internet connections but also working devices to access the internet to avail basic rights such as their right to education, communication, and work. The digital space is not only built for recreational purposes but to carry out essential errands as well. Apps like Zoom, WhatsApp, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, etc., became increasingly popular over the last two years as they became the primary mode of communication in various capacities. And while they practically became a necessity to have some semblance of a normal life during an unprecedented global pandemic, the most marginalised of the society continued to be deprived and found themselves struggling to access digital platforms for reasons beyond their control.
It is crucial to highlight that society cannot move on until and unless access to the internet is provided for all and a meaningful connection is established throughout. And for a connection to be meaningful, it has to be constant, easy to access, affordable, and of top-notch quality so as to compete with the rest of the societies. Telecom providers are persistently introducing cheap packages for marketing purposes, but it must be ensured that the connections they offer do not compromise on reliability and strength. It falls upon both the service providers and the government to guarantee the equal quality of access to the internet, regardless of factors like geographical location and affordability levels. There is a plethora of research that supports the need to provide internet connections to enhance a nation’s developmental curve. Communication is the tool needed to survive in the digitised world that we live in today, and regulators need to maintain checks that working-class citizens are no longer discriminated against, especially for basic needs, like the internet.
Featured artwork by Aniqa Haider
Mishaal is a Project Coordinator at Media Matters for Democracy. She is a Public Policy graduate with past experience as content strategist and research writer. Her main areas of interest are political science, world history, and public policy.