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ISLAMABAD: Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has imposed fine of Rs 50 million on Telenor Pakistan due to non-adherence of applicable regulatory framework, while suffering breakdown of major communication services in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).

PTA further directed the licensee to tender an apology to all its affected consumers, refund Rs 18 million unconditionally to affected subscribers, and deposit the remaining amount of Rs32 million in the Authority’s designated account within 15 days. In case of non-compliance of the direction, further legal action will be initiated without any notice, the Authority added.

When contacted, Telenor Pakistan Spokesperson Saad Waraich told Business Recorder that the services were not shut down by the company and in fact, they were forced out of the company-operated towers and offices. “There is no way we could have intimated our users of service closure in advance as we did not get any notice period ourselves,” remarked the spokesperson.

He further said it was issued a tax demand notice during on December 24th, and due to long-weekend on account of Quaid-e-Azam day (25th, 26th & 27th December, 2020), it was never delivered to the company until December 29th, 2021. As per Telenor, on the same day, i.e., on December 29th, 2021, FBR officers sealed the Telenor offices and towers that affected thousands of customers, without giving the company any chance to clear the demand note. Telenor spokesperson said that in such a situation, where things were beyond the control, the company looks up to PTA for support, and not a penalty order.

PTA panel headed by its chairman Maj. Gen. Amir Azeem Bajwa (Retd) heard a show cause notice with respect to breakdown of major communication services in AJK.

“In light of discussion and findings, it is an admitted position that the licensee is at fault due to non-adherence of applicable regulatory framework. A certificate from external auditor to confirm that refund has been made to all affected subscribers in the required manner within 60 days from the receipt of this order. In case of non-compliance of the afore-referred direction, further legal action will be initiated without any notice,” PTA order added.

The Consumer Regulations provides that consumers shall be entitled for uninterrupted services at all times and in the case of unforeseen technical interruptions/ faults the licensee shall inform the reasons for the interruption and expected time for restoration of licensed services to the consumer by any means listed in the Consumer Regulations. Furthermore, the Consumer Regulations obligates the licensee to take all reasonable and necessary steps for providing consumers with adequate arrangements/concessions in case of lengthy outages or licensed service interruption for which due notice was not served.

The licensee is under an obligation to report about all major communication breakdowns to PTA HQs and its concerned Zonal offices in jurisdiction of which the breakdown occurs through prompt information reporting system, i.e., through mobile/ telephone call, WhatsApp messages or SMS following within an email and written report by all services providers on occurrence within two (02) hours.

However, in the instant matter, the licensee has failed to comply with the same. The licensee, contrary to mandatory requirements of reporting as provided in SOP, informed/ intimated the Authority after a considerable delay. In addition, the licensee has also failed to substantiate any cogent reason for delay. Further the SOP also requires the licensee on the same day to share the details of the communication breakdown/ fault in media along with tentative timeline(s) of restoration for the information of general public followed by intimating through print media on the next day.

The licensee on dated 5th January, 2021 intimated PTA about the incident/ breakdown occurred on 29th and 31stDecember, 2020 and 1st January, 2021 which affected 43,500 subscribers and resulted in loss of 10 percent customers as per licensee’s response. The licensee failed to provide a detailed descriptive report of the incident along with unfiltered OSS KPIs/ parameters, all relevant supporting record as well non-provision of report in line with Authority’s directions issued on 14th January, 2020, 30th December 2020 and 1st January 2021. The licensee also denied the access to its premises, i.e., OSS/NOC on 3rd January, 2021 to the authorized representative(s)/ officer(s) of the Authority despite prior formal intimation. As a consequence thereof, a Show Cause Notice (SCN) was issued to the licensee on 19th March, 2021.

In response to SCN, the licensee submitted detailed reply. The main submissions put forth by the licensee are as given; the tax demand note dated 24th December 2020 issued by the Commissioner was never officially received by the licensee due to the long weekend on account of Quaid-e-Azam day (25th, 26th & 27th December, 2020). The Commissioner proceeded to illegally shutdown the licensee’s Telecommunication Network. It further submitted that on the same day Nasir Ali Khan, Director Regional Office PTA, AJK called a member of the Licensee’s regulatory team to inquire about the rise in customer complaints and requested urgent investigation into the matter. Upon investigation, it was discovered that the BTS towers of the Licensee’s Telecommunication Network are being illegally shutdown, due to issuance of the Demand Note and the same was communicated to the Authority.

The Demand Note letter was officially received on 29th December 2020 and the Licensee’s teams were mobilized for early resolution of the matter. In addition, the Licensee proceeded to file an Appeal in the Tax Tribunal, AJK, which was not in session; thereof, a Writ Petition in the High Court of AJK was filed against such illegal tax demand Note of the Commissioner. Further under Income Tax Ordinance, 2001, the Commissioner’s action for the recovery of tax was only limited to the attachment for sale of assets (other than telecommunication equipment) which do not include switching off public switch network deployed by the Licensee. Therefore, the Commissioner has clearly acted beyond his jurisdiction and has exceeded his statutory rights by forcefully shutting down the Telecommunication Network which was not warranted under the law. The Commissioner and others involved in shutting down Telecommunication Network of the Licensee committed a criminal offence under the relevant laws which secures and protects the rights and interests of Telecom Operators.

It is evident and more than clear considering the sequence in events that the Licensee has been victimized at the hands of the Commission to immense loss of revenue to the extent of Rs. 14.72 million, permanent loss of 10 percent customers and reputational loss to the Licensee, which we are accessing and shall be raised in due course of time. The Commissioner and others involved, for committing this crime, should be undoubtedly prosecuted in accordance with the various laws of the land that afford protection to Telecom Operators, which will be a lesson and serve as a precedent to avoid any such reoccurrence in the future.

The Licensee has always provided uninterrupted services and has never denied or refused to provide telecommunication services to its consumers; however, the interruption in the provision of services was a result of the unwarranted act on the part of the Commissioner which was beyond the Licensee’s control. In addition, the Licensee has always shown compliance to the provisions of the Acts, Rules and Regulations. The licensee was not in non-compliance of the above-mentioned provisions of the law and violation of provisions as quoted in the SCN are not committed or applicable to the licensee in view of the facts and circumstances submitted herein. Therefore, allegations in SCN in this regard are false, not sustainable or maintainable and are liable to be withdrawn and set aside without further progress in the matter.

In order to proceed further, the matter was fixed for hearing and the licensee reiterated the submissions as already made through its written reply to the SCN.

The Authority stated that after careful examination of record, arguments and written reply to SCN filed by the licensee, following are the findings: Available record reveals that as consequence of issue between the licensee and the Revenue Authorities, premises sites were closed down which caused disconnection/ discontinuation of telecommunication services. The issue was never reported to PTA about the occurrence of the incident.

The contention of the licensee that closure of telecommunication services was done by the revenue authorities, despite the fact there were court cases, is not a justifiable reason on the premise that as per license terms and conditions, the licensee is under obligation to abide by all laws for the time being in force in AJK. The plea of the licensee that sites were shut down by revenue authorities would not suffice to repudiate the licensee from its license obligations with regard to provision of telecommunication services to end users.

The licensee’s claim during hearing before the Authority held on 1st June, 2021 that the Zonal Director was approached by the licensee on 29th December, 2020 is contrary to the verified factual position. After taking up the matter with the licensee by PTA and carrying out inquiry into the matter, the licensee reluctantly reported through a formal letter about the incident with a lapse of four days. Such delay on the part of the licensee is a sheer contravention of procedure as laid down in SOP.

The licensee reported that 250 out 422 sites were impacted and total number of subscribers in AJK as of December 2020 was 1,950,000. On the other hand, the licensee claimed that only 43,500 subscribers were affected which is not justifiable as at least 60 percent subscribers would have been affected due to 60 percent network outage. The 60 percent subscribers of 1,950,000 turn out to be 1,170,000 subscribers. In addition, the licensee on 3rd January, 2021, informed Authorized representative(s)/ officer (s) of the Authority that NOC teams are working from home and as per routine quarterly KPIs will be shared with PTA. However, contrary to the claim of the licensee, it is an admitted fact that NOC/OSS cannot be operated in isolation and sharing of quarterly KPIs does not translate with the incident under reference in any manner. In light of foregoing discussion and findings, it is an admitted position that the licensee is at fault due to non-adherence of applicable regulatory framework.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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