ISPs in Kashmir grappling with mounting losses amid recurrent shutdowns
Srinagar: CNS Infotel Services, once a buzzing cybercafé in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk, is now a prominent internet service provider (ISP) for the town. It is popular for providing uninterrupted, fast internet connection, but that reputation has been tough to maintain as the Kashmir Valley has witnessed 56 internet shutdowns since 2012, 38 over the last two years alone. This has pushed the economy downhill and discouraged new enterprises from emerging.
Once the internet is blocked, executives at ISPs either skip calls to avoid public ire, or express their helplessness over the sudden disruption of internet ordered by authorities in the wake of some security situation.
An executive at CNS, Imran says how a sudden ‘police directive’ often forces them to apply the internet ‘kill switch’. “In May this year,” says Imran, “we received a circular stating that authorities want us to block 22 social media and messaging sites, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Skype, Telegram and Viber, with immediate effect.” That day, CNS executives were only repeating a prohibition procedure that has become a norm in the Valley. In the post-2008 Kashmir, as street protests became the popular
mode of dissent, the state’s observation has been that resistance is being “fuelled by social media.”
“There’s a perpetual struggle for us to grapple between police orders and annoyed customers,” says Owais Mir, an executive of G Technologies, another ISP in Srinagar. “The frequent internet gags hamper our operations… annoyed customers often threaten to either switch over to another service provider or to deactivate their connections.”
Mobile data and broadband services in Kashmir were banned 10 times between April 8 and July 13 in 2017. “By then,” Imran says, “we were running into huge losses.”
While Imran does not have an actual figure to quote about the loss he faced, mobile ISPs were decrying daily losses to the tune of Rs 2 crore between April and July 2017.
According to Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), mobile service providers in Kashmir suffered losses worth Rs 180 crore during that period. When such orders are passed, usually, except the state-run BSNL, other service providers — Airtel, Aircel, Vodafone and Reliance (Jio) — promptly shut down their operations. The postpaid BSNL numbers, which are mainly with police, army and government officials, continue running.
Raouf Athar, a project manager and director with Yarikul Software Solutions in Srinagar, which provides software development and support solutions to clients in India and Europe, says his dependency on internet for business is 100%. Yarikul has a staff strength of less than 10 at present.
“In an event of an outage/ban on internet services, we are unable to work properly. In order to tackle these situations, we had to opt for more expensive alternatives like lease lines and BSNL broadband connections, which are not affected by the ban,” says Athar. “But these connections do not allow our tiny staff to be flexible and work from home as per the need. Many a times we find it difficult to communicate with clients who are not in our time zone,” he adds.
The repeated loss of communication in the Valley has prompted Kashmiri netizens to explore solutions. Many of them have learnt to access the Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), mostly through broadband internet and state-owned BSNL, in order to continue using messaging services and social media.
A VPN uses proxy servers to securely access a private network while allowing users to change location and share data remotely through public networks. It secures a connection through encryption and security protocols, and enables access to content that is otherwise blocked. VPN keeps the ISP from placing restrictions on access.
“VPNs help us to overcome the irrational social media blockade,” says Shagufta Mir, a college student from Srinagar. “More than a political statement, using VPN sends out a positive message that Kashmiris have evolved to tackle repeated restrictions imposed on them.” Most users have learnt about VPNs from their tech-savvy peers.
“When the government banned social media earlier this year,” says Shafat Hamid, a trader, “my friend taught me how to access a VPN. I felt empowered to be able to overcome the frequent gag on online activities.”
‘India worse than Iraq’
Jammu & Kashmir has higher internet penetration than the all-India average with 28.62 internet subscribers per 100 people compared to the national figure of 25.37.
Although broadband was functioning, the suspended mobile internet for over five months from July 9 to Nov 19, 2016 (data services on pre-paid mobiles remained suspended until January 27, 2017) saw many operators winding up. During that period, internetshutdowns.in, a website run by Delhi-based non-profit Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) to track incidents of internet shutdowns across India, recorded that Kashmir had no internet access for “over 2,920 hours”. This made India worse than Iraq and Pakistan in terms of number of days without internet, according to a report by the Brookings Institution.
According to a report, out of the 14,000 local youth employed in the IT sector in the Valley, an estimated 7,000 people lost their jobs due to the frequent internet shutdowns imposed last year. Online businesses incurred losses worth Rs 40-50 lakh on a daily basis during that period.
During the internet shutdown last year, COAI had written to the department of telecommunications that such communication bans have an adverse impact on the subscribers and result in losses to telecom operators. “Kashmir lost around 4.5 lakh active subscribers during the 2016 unrest,” says Sameer Parray, an area manager for Vodafone.
But service providers say they have to comply with the orders, lest their licenses be cancelled.
[Click here to read this article on The Centre for Internet & Society, where it was first published.]