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What could be the next worse thing for Pakistanis already smarting several hours of load-shedding on a daily basis? Looking at their smartphones and finding no signals! That’s essentially what the country’s top telecom firms (PTCL, Jazz, Telenor, and Ufone) have reportedly warned the government lately: severe power outages are threatening their capability to provide 24/7 connectivity services.

One had thought that telecom operators would be much relieved that they were spared the higher end of the super-tax bracket last week – but now it appears they are unwilling to express their gratitude to the government just yet. Operators claim that the blackouts are so intense that even their large backup capacities (generators and batteries) – which help keep the BTS sites (telecom towers) running round the clock by providing contingencies in case of load-shedding – are unable to bridge the shortages.

Considering that the load-shedding is across the board, the private-sector-led telecom industry’s obvious recourse in such a situation is to import more generators and batteries. The catch is that importing more backup is now financially and operationally cumbersome, due to recent regulatory measure requiring 100 percent cash-margin on opening LCs of several products (including telecom machinery). And even if more backup became available, burning more and more diesel is financially-draining and highly-polluting.

The government has no good options. Limited availability of electricity is indeed threatening business continuity across a number of sectors. In the case of telcos, any pause or break in the voice, text and Internet services will have immediate and broad-based ramifications across the economy. Connectivity has become a basic utility, so it often gets taken for granted, until it is no more there to serve.The pandemic laid bare the importance of digital connectivity, and in turn, financial health of this industry.

Be that as it may, there needs to be more clarity on this issues on the telco’s part. What does a ‘connectivity blackout’ really entail? Does it mean service degradation? Or total absence of signals for some time? How many hours of such outages are telco’s foreseeing in the near future? Are any such outages already happening? How will such outages affect urban vs. rural areas? If a detailed analysis has already been presented to the government, it should be shared in public as well, for informed discussion. It is in the operators’ own interest to release more data in public so that expectations can be managed.

However, if telco’s just talked about this issue vocally without substantiating it with data, folks outside the industry may feel that raising power shortage issue at this stage is probably an effort by telco’s to wiggle out of their licensing obligations relating to quality of service, network rollout, etc. Besides, more-skeptical observers may point out: why are the telco’s, who usually talk a good game on sustainability and using clean energy, caught unprepared burning diesel in their generators? Why has the industry as a whole not migrated to a model where telecom towers are owned and operated by third-party specialists?

If the magnitude of this problem (reducing capacity at operators to provide assured connectivity) is indeed growing large, then it is a really tough issue to tackle in the current circumstances. Let’s see how the operators and the government jointly manage any adverse outcomes in the future.

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