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March 28, 2020

Cellular firms want employees at workplace


March 28, 2020

LAHORE:Cellular Mobile Operators (CMO) approached the federal and provincial governments, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority and other authorities concerned in Pakistan to ensure and allow the CMO employees to reach their workplaces for continuation of essential mobile and other telecommunication services uninterrupted during the fight against the coronavirus pandemic in country.

The Punjab and Sindh governments kept the CMOs in the exemption lists when they issued the lockdown orders of the provinces to limit the mobility and maintain the necessary social distancing to avoid the spread of COVID-19 in the respective provinces. However, the orders were not complied and the CMOs are facing numerous issues to perform their duties. The CMO officials reported hundreds of complaints to the government authorities that the sales, technical and franchise staff in many cases were stopped and arrested in Punjab and Sindh. In some cases, the police forcibly stopped the cash collection from the markets which was required to continue the Mobile Financial Services (MFS). The CMOs are facing restraints in movement of their authorised personnel, crackdown on the franchisees, stoppage/confiscation of the vehicles involved in logistics like fueling of BTS Towers etc by Police and other LEAs on nationwide basis.

They mentioned that not only the police stopped the CMOs employees from working despite having all required documents and permission for working, the officials were also arresting them. In number of cases, they were released by the Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs), but confiscated bike and other vehicle. In a number of complaints about the police arresting them in Punjab and getting released from following up by the respective companies officials.

Furthermore, in different areas of Punjab and KP, labourers were stopped from working on sites by the deputy commissioners and other LEAs, dispersed the labourers and filled the trenches made for Optic Fiber Cable (OFC) installation. Similarly, across Pakistan equipment movement was halted by the LEAs. In number of cases, the technical teams of the CMOs were detained by the LEAs, flattened their vehicles tyres. Interestingly, the suppliers having the PTA letters were also not allowed by the LEAs to move and halting the supplies for indefinite time. The worst situation was witnessed by the technical teams who were going to rectifications of down sites of the network for smooth ICT services and LEAs refused to see any letter of Ministry of Information and Technology (MoIT) and respective CMOs permission letter of site maintenance.

Earlier, the Sindh, Punjab, MoIT, PTA and other authorities had written letters to the CMOs for seamless continuation of the ICT and telecommunication services during the ongoing lockdown.

The CMOs stated that the industry was committed to provide uninterrupted seamless telecommunication services across Pakistan and AJK and GB. However, the industry is striving hard for this effort in the current emergency situation of fight against Covid-19, enabling communication for government, military and LEA officials, emergency relief workers, medical staff and the general public to remain in contact with their colleagues/families and do necessary business, while adhering to government’s pledge for safety standards of social distancing.

According to a spokesperson for a mobile company, the telecom sector has an extremely important role to play in these testing times but unfortunately we’re facing some major challenges. On one hand, closure of retailer shops has created a demand and supply gap in the market and on the other hand, our engineers and field staff are unable to reach sites to fix operational issues due to travel restrictions. This has negatively impacted network performance. The need of the hour is for the government to formulate a plan which could help the telecom sector in provision of seamless services. The CMOs official mentioned that to ensure business continuity with the routine Operation and Maintenance (O&M) activities ofcellular networks such BTS Towers and exchanges, call centers for online customer services, and by distribution of scratch cards and prepaid load in the market through franchise network at the open outlets like general stores and pharmacies in accordance with the permission of the respective governments free mobility of the CMOs employee is crucial. They assured that no crisis or panic situation arises due to its shortage leading to a potential breakdown of the communication infrastructure in the prevailing emergency situation.

According to the PTA, 15 percent increase in internet usage is witnessed in the country after COVID-19 lock down as the most of the people are working from home, besides increased educational activities through distance learning platforms provided by the universities and educational institutions to their students. Thus load on mobile and internet service providers has also increased.

The telecom sector has been playing a pivotal role in the situation. However, currently telecom companies are facing major challenges to meet this demand and supply problem due to various factors. The first major factor is that most of the retailers have closed down their shops due to strict government orders. Few retailers who are still providing balance and prepaid load are facing acute shortage of supplies because sale representatives of companies are not able to visit franchises and restock required material.

Secondly, due to the lockdown situation technical staff, engineers, field staff are unable to reach sites to fix any operational issue, resultantly, network problems remain unresolved and people constantly encounter poor mobile signals or slow internet speed across country. Expert technicians and engineers are needed for ongoing O&M requirements of the optical fibre cable laid across Pakistan for backhaul of voice and internet/data traffic. If faults in the optical fibre cables are not timely checked and rectified then it could lead to prolonged internet disruption. Furthermore, all the network sites require constant refueling to run generators placed at the site. The lockdown has created a fuel shortage on the site because movement is completely blocked. Telecom operators are now facing a double- edged sword. On one hand, they want to ensure seamless connectivity for their customers especially during such testing times but on the other hand, their capacity has been largely reduced.

Chief Corporate Affairs Officer of a company Kamal Ahmed, responding to The News stated that “the country is going through challenging times and our foremost objective remains provision of uninterrupted services to the people so that they stay connected with their loved ones and ensure their business continuity.

We have deployed an optimal number of field staff; however, we are facing some difficulties in accessing sites due to the lockdown. We are constantly monitoring our network activity to efficiently and effectively deal with any extraordinary surges or activity. So far we have been successfully able to carry out our operations as planned.

There has been an impact on our physical retail outlets due to precautionary measures by the staff and lockdown by the authorities; however, there are multiple digital channels where our products and solutions are available, and we are encouraging the users to stay home and make use of online retail channels. We are working very closely with the relevant authorities and appreciate the support they are extending”, he stated.

Chief Commercial Officer of another mobile phone company Syed Fakhar Ahmed talking to The News, said that globally, the government prioritised the three sectors, medicine, food and telecommunication in fight against COVID-19 by allowing them mobility. However, in Pakistan, food and medicine sectors are moving but the telecommunication sector is facing mobility problems despite the clearly mentioned in the exemption list order. “Almost 80 million Pakistanis are using MFS facility to send money to the families back home and in this dire need of time they are facing numerous problems in sending of money while the governments already stopped the public transports. The MFS merchants are closed or retail stores did not have huge credit facilities so the CMOs representatives visit these merchants daily to collect and give money for MFS”, he said adding that the CMOs officials were unable to reach due to lockdown as LEAs were not permitting them to move so the small MFS users who commonly not have a bank account are going to suffer a lot.

The CMOs suggested that to fulfill sustainability of telecommunication services during current crises situation, draft a comprehensive action plan through which the telecom sector could be facilitated and ease of doing work is created is the need of the hour. Their authorised staff allowed moving across the BTS towers as well as he exchanges, call centres and franchised outlets to remain operational, while fully complying the security and medical advice against cluttering and avoid mass contact.