The past week was a nightmare for wireless users in Pakistan. The blackout of cell phone communications in most parts of the country affected not only the GSM and CDMA based mobile and SMS communications, but also major business houses, banks, multinational corporations and their remote camps using PTCL wireless and internet wireless connections. Travellers using ATMs were caught off guard without money. The entire quality of life was disrupted in one sense or another. Communication companies and value added service providers lost millions and accordingly, the government much needed revenues.

Perhaps, the worst affected were the tablet users of Android, Apple and Blackberry, who had long ago packed away their laptops for these slim, smart and convenient mode of communications and documentation. A senior citizen commenting on Facebook summarised the misery by posting, “the two most miserable days of my life. I could not talk and could not go out.” Though his first contention pertains to the prolonged radio silence, the second spells the insecurity in the daily chores of life wherein a convenient tool of technology has become a nightmare in the hands of assassins. But then the same is the case of a knife and the hand that uses it.

So who has failed? Are the service providers, who earn billions to be blamed or the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) warrants accountability for its lack of professionalism, enforcement and sheer neglect allowing a free for all whale-feeding frenzy on the dying carcass of a nation that refuses to succumb?

Cellular communications and internet were introduced internationally around 17 years ago. Though at that time, the two were distinct and different technologies, they soon fused to form an information marvel through the use of microprocessors and information highway. Apple, Blackberry and Google have been at the front of this revolution. At the same time, these technologies have been invasive, eavesdropping on patterns, contents, locations and lifestyles through GPRS, communication towers, interception equipment and data processing.

The developed countries were quick to enact and affect regulatory bodies to oversee this exponential development to track criminals and crimes. While countries like Pakistan plagued by kickback greed, lack of regulatory vision and propensity to pass on the buck are now hostage to criminalisation of this technology. Lacking a systems approach, vision and dedication, the communication cartels of Pakistan in cahoots with the federal communication gurus have left the country in a perpetual state of fear and terror. The entire country is now hostage to a phenomenon that was and remains avoidable.

Pakistan now has one of the highest mobile penetrations in the world and highest in South Asia. According to statistics, the cellular industry of Pakistan by May 2012 had almost 120 million subscribers, implying that the tele-density of mobile subscribers reached 68.8 percent, up from 68.2 percent in March 2012. With the increasing use of data services in the country, estimated data revenues of telecom operators reached Rs 25.9 billion during July-December 2011, implying an inextricable link of the mobile communications with the industrial houses and the loss they suffer due to radio silence.

In order to regulate this impending influx, the government in 1994 formed an independent regulatory body called PTA. Telecommunication (Re-Organisation) Act No XVII was promulgated in 1996, aimed to reorganise the telecom sector of Pakistan. Under Telecom Re-Organisation Act 1996, PTA was established to regulate the establishment, operation and maintenance of the telecommunication systems, and the provision of telecom services.

It gives unrestricted powers to the Government of Pakistan to issue policy statements and regulations in the name of protecting national security unrestricting limitations on the government to issue directives and orders in violation of freedom of expression and privacy rights. It permits interception of communications. It also places restrictions on the use of encryption by users to prevent unlawful interception of their communications.

Over the past years, the Act has been used by the government to suppress freedom of speech in the country, including the indiscriminate and unlawful blocking of web pages, filtering of communications systems based on keywords, the stopping of internet services using encryption and the ordering of mass surveillance and disruption of communications systems.

Despite such draconian measures, the Act provides little in terms of SIM verification, illegal SIMs as crime and punishments for users and providers in a country torn by militancy, ongoing operations against terrorism and fraud. It is this loophole in the mechanism exploited by terrorists to link cell phones to explosive devices, resulting in indiscriminate bloodshed.

Sometime in 2012, when SIM verification became a major issue related to suicide bombings and cyber crimes, PTA passed the buck to Pakistan Mobile Database Company (PMDC), owned by five mobile operators of Pakistan under the aegis of Telcordia Technologies of New Jersey, USA. As it needs two to tango, the spread of millions of illegal SIMs holds these companies culpable and, therefore, last to act for their own indictment.

After having made billions in unchecked sale of SIMs, they now stand absolved. It now remains the headache of intelligence agencies and Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to track selective criminals.

The situation has now reached wherein the government, its regulating authorities and agencies are reluctant to act; making it fail-safe against misuse, thereby rendering all cellular traffic unsafe from a national security point of view. Their shortcut solution is the imposition of a total radio silence, akin to killing a fly with a sledge hammer.

In Pakistan, the rise of cellular related crime is directly proportional to the growth of the sector in terms of coverage, SIM density and revenues. The inference, that someone, somewhere turned a blind eye to this relationship cannot be denied. Two rapid assassination attacks on former President Pervez Musharraf had underlined the misuse of this technology in terrorism and needed sharper focus. Yet, the unchecked sale of SIMs without verification of users exploded after 2004.

The introduction of 688 services by the PMDC is a nightmare for any conscientious citizen. Recently, the writer himself became aware of many SIMs issued against his National Identity Card (NIC) and had them blocked. How the culprits got millions of copies of NICs or why cellular companies issued these connections without verification remain a case study. This is a mega scandal in itself and any government worth its salt must pursue it relentlessly.

It is also to question, why the government and service providers treat internet connectivity via CDMA and GSM, post-paid billed connections and post-paid connections in the same stride. Would it not be prudent to just block the pre-paid connections (major culprits) in case of emergencies? Or, should the government not force the cellular companies to segregate the two to ensure uninterrupted communication to its conscientious clients?

Why has Parliament, empowered to enact legislation, PTA and PMDC (a group of offshore cellular services providers headed by Telecodia) not moved to resolve the issue of unverified SIMs is a question that needs investigation? Inaction either individually or in unison is a question that needs attention by Pakistan’s parliamentarians and national security managers?

It is to question, why Telecommunication (Re-Organisation) Act No XVII failed to formulate procedures to prevent misuse and lay down punitive and dissuasive measures?

The entire issue related to communication breakdowns and arbitrary radio silence is just one aspect. The government is also guilty of not yet enacting legislation on counter-terrorism as a result of which, the efforts and sacrifices of the law enforcement agencies go in vain before a law designed only for peace times. This neglect is just one part of successive governments adept at making quick bucks.

The writer is a retired army officer, current affairs host on television and political economist. Email: