Ashura blackout costs cellcos PKR1.8b; biometric SIM registration rollout begins

19 Nov 2013

Pakistan’s wireless operators are estimated to have lost PKR1.8 billion (USD16.645 million) in revenues as a result of forced network closures during the festival of Ashura (13 and 14 November) in more than 80 cities this year, Pro Pakistani writes. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) instructed all operators to shut down all mobile and fixed-wireless services in all major cities in Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for the two days, whilst in Rawalpindi services remained offline for four days. In addition to the losses suffered by telcos, the government forfeited around PKR610 million in taxes. According to TeleGeography’s GlobalComms Database, the Interior Ministry began coordinating telecoms blackouts in late 2012 in response to threats of terrorism. The measures taken by the nation’s security agencies have been a bone of contention between authorities and operators, which criticised the ease with which the Interior Minister could order a cellular blackout.

In related news, wireless providers have begun deploying biometric verification systems for SIM registration. The equipment is compulsory at customer service centres and franchises that sell SIMs, and is part of the nation’s drive to reduce the use of mobile phones in crime. The systems feature a thumbprint scanner that will check the customer against the National Database and Registration Authority’s (NADRA’s) records to confirm the would-be subscriber’s identity before a SIM is issued. Pakistan has long struggled with the large number of unregistered and unverified SIMs in the market and the requirement of biometric verification is the most recent in a string of schemes to eliminate or reduce the problem. Whilst compliant with the measures a number of telcos have expressed concerns over the strategy, suggesting that for the scheme to work properly every wireless subscriber would need to re-verify their SIMs.