December 29, 2021 — The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has restored the internet in the Kurram Agency of former FATA. The decision was announced by the PTA through a press release on December 28. The authority said that it took the decision “after review of [the] security situation by concerned forums.”
The internet in seven districts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) — a semi-autonomous body until 2018 when it was merged with the neighbouring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), was suspended in June 2016 after an armed clash between forces on Torkham border joining Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since then, mobile networks and the internet have been unavailable to millions of residents in the region. The recent restoration of internet services in Kurram agency makes the services accessible in 6 out of 7 agencies of former FATA.
The denial of internet access to residents of former FATA for years has led to serious implications on access to healthcare, education, work, communication and entertainment. During the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, the region was hit significantly in the absence of working internet connectivity.
While many students staged protests to demand internet access for online classes, a student of National University of Modern Languages (NUML) petitioned the Islamabad High Court (IHC) in April 2020 to restore access in former FATA. The IHC ordered PTA to enable 3G/4G broadband internet as a response, but the Federal Government sought more time to assess security conditions before the restoration. The Court, at the time, said, “This is not occupied Kashmir, therefore people of these areas are free to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights.” It further observed, “It appears that there is no refusal on part of the Federal Government to extend the internet facilities to the inhabitants of [FATA] […]. However, it appears that due to the exceptional conditions that had prevailed in the past, the respective Governments and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority may require time to develop the infrastructure in some affected areas.”
In January 2021, while speaking at a rally in Waziristan, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that 3G/4G internet services will be restored in the district from that day. He said at the ceremony, “I spoke to my security agencies […] we agreed that we need to be cognizant of terrorists using [3G/4G] facility. Despite this, we also thought that it is the need of our young people and that is why this service will become operational from today.” However, no update was provided afterwards and the internet continued to be disconnected. By June 2021, the federal government told the Court that the schedule to provide internet access has been prepared, and the government will begin restoration per the plan. PTA restored the internet connectivity in Khyber agency in the same month.
The latest news of restoration of mobile broadband in former FATA comes as the world enters the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2022. A January 2021 research by Media Matters for Democracy titled, Women Disconnected, found that the lack of digital access in disconnected areas has impacted women’s health substantially and has cost them their lives in many cases. The pandemic has revealed the importance of internet access as a necessity rather than a luxury that the Pakistani government and citizens have largely assumed it to be. Pakistan continues to have a critical digital divide with 49 percent of the population having some form of access to the internet, according to PTA telecom indicators as of November 2021. Despite an evident need to connect more people to the internet, recent policy changes to increase taxation on digital devices has a potential to widen the gap.