Broadband Internet

Broadband Internet: The Case For a Connected Azad Kashmir

Like so many others, my partners and I come to Azad Kashmir for a simple reason: We want to help. First, to assist children and their families who have no homes and are cold and hungry. Second, we are here to offer ideas for sensible improvements for the long-term. We do this at no charge. We do this for, as one hears so often in northern Pakistan and Azad Kashmir, “for the humanity.”

There is a future beyond the earthquake recovery and for our part, we ask the governments of Pakistan and Azad Kashmir to bring back to life a project that is critical to the future welfare of the region. The feasibility studies have been accomplished and it is time to move ahead now. Here it is: In the ground, bury fiber optic cable to deliver high-speed, broadband internet service from the existing fiber optic cable terminus at Abbottabad into the heart of this region, Muzaffarabad. And, simultaneously install an equal capacity redundant link from Islamabad to Muzaffarabad via Murree. These seem to us to be obvious routes but maybe there are better ones. The point is, one way or the other and as soon as possible, get fiber cable in the ground and get high speed broadband internet service to Muzaffarabad.

Right now, without the requisite IT capacities, Azad Kashmir is being overlooked by a wide swath of outsiders who could help with relief, rehabilitation and physical rebuild. It is not that people from the outside are ignoring Azad Kashmir, it is that they cannot easily find information about it and they are unable to experience efficient communication with those who live and work here. And, those who do live and work here will continue to have limited impact on the outside world because they simply can’t efficiently interface with it. It is a much larger problem than is obvious to the casual observer.

If broadband had been here on October 8th, earthquake relief efforts would have been astoundingly more efficient and donations would have been much more significant simply because there would have been adequate communication resources. It is this simple: if people can’t or won’t communicate, things don’t happen. I call these lost opportunities “errors of omission.” In other words, when tasks are not accomplished or things go wrong, it is usually due to poor communication and not because some individual or organization made a mistake.

What is done is done, but now is now and the sooner the high-speed system is operational, the sooner benefits will accumulate. Beginning the very day high speed internet is available, the benefits will compound one on another, magnified geometrically. Benefits will be instant and the long term advantages will be astounding.

Just how backwards is current IT technology in Azad Kashmir, specifically Muzaffarabad? Mr. Javaid Ayub, the Director of Administration and Finance, Government of AJK IT Board, the man in charge of IT for Azad Kashmir, has a Yahoo Email address that he accesses with a 56k dial-up modem. He buys blocks of five hundred minutes from a local ISP “just like the guy down the street.” Astounding!

And here is another illustration: The Azad Kashmir website is At a maximum of a half dozen a day, emails trickle in via the site’s “contact us” link. Mr. Ayub checks often for these incoming messages as he feels no one else in the government is inclined to consistently do it (oddly, and as an aside, each incoming email message is available for anyone to see). Here are two typical email messages, received in the immediate aftermath of the quake: “I would like to donate helicopter cargo nets to the earthquake effort…” and, “I would appreciate your help…we are looking at creating a foundation towards relief and sustainable development in Azad Kashmir…we would like to focus on children, including education and health…”

Mr. Ayub transcribes these incoming email messages hard-copy and has them hand delivered to the appropriate administrative people because most AJK government departments do not use email.

My guess is that the responses to these incoming emails were too slow or, more probably, responses did not happen at all: lost opportunities to the people of Azad Kashmir. Mr. Ayub told me that when the website first went on-line two years ago there were many, many emails coming in. Now there are just a few messages each day because, he says, responses have been anemic at best and the outside world gave up sending their messages of assistance to a place that did not respond. And it seems to me that many outsiders with offers of aid declined to send additional emails when they discovered their initial messages were available for anyone to see.

I asked Mr. Faisal Shehzad, Project Manager for AJK IT, if he was frustrated with the situation (he has had experience with the outside world’s lightning fast broadband internet connections). He responded good-naturedly with “we use what we have: what is, is.” This man is dedicated and willing to do the best he can without complaining but it is unquestionable that Mr. Shehzad could accomplish a LOT more if he didn’t have to wait for snail-pace loading and uploading. With high-speed broadband, his activity on the internet would be literally hundreds of times faster.

My recent personal experience on one of the AJK IT department’s computers, after the dial-up modem connected it to the internet, was that it took five minutes for a simple text email to be transmitted. Back home, on my personal computer, that same email would have been transmitted in less than one second. I had not used a dial-up modem in five years and it was almost nostalgic to sit there in front of the screen just waiting for processing to take place. As a journalist, spending four weeks in Muzaffarabad, every few days I had to physically travel to Islamabad in order to submit my articles and photos. I could not send them out on the snail-pace internet connections available in Muzaffarabad.

In contrast to Mr. Shehzad’s daily dilemma, note that within three days of the earthquake, and for the first time ever, Muzaffarabad had commercial cellular/mobile telephone service. This was per President Musharraf’s direct personal orders. Three days! There was no question that mobile telephone communications were vital for relief efforts, so Pakistan’s president simply gave the order and made it happen: It was important enough. So, the value of telecommunications is clear and there is no question that high-speed broadband internet connectivity has at least the same importance as cellular communications.

The telecommunications isolation of Azad Kashmir boils down to a simple mechanical bottleneck: the existing fragile, unreliable and low-capacity microwave IT link from Abbottabad to Muzaffarabad. This absurdly inefficient radio-wave weak link can be eliminated simply by replacing it with a buried fiber-optic circuit.

Of course, this place has been in dispute and so it has been difficult to make plans for the future – until now. Azad Kashmir and Indian occupied Kashmir have been an international political hot-bed but it is clear there is a thaw in relations and that we might see something better between the governments of Pakistan and India. The problem may not be completely solved right now but at least we have a meaningful break in the tension and we are on a road that could lead to long-term peace later. So, now is time for Azad Kashmir to catch up with the economies and social structures of the outside world; to offer its people more options and opportunities.

And, this has to be said: Policies such as the Non Objection Certificate requirement and other similar bureaucratic hurdles need to go away. People who can bring opportunity and money to Azad Kashmir will not come if the government makes physically getting there difficult.

In Azad Kashmir, I have been in the tent camps, on the streets and in the highest government offices. The people here are resolute about their recovery; confident they will carry on beyond this tragedy. To compliment their natural strength and resiliency, Azad Kashmir’s population has the highest literacy rate in the region. This is because the education of Kashmiri children has been of huge importance to their parents. The people here, in a simple and purposeful lifestyle that is built around the family unit, with powerful beliefs of what is right and wrong; with an exceptional focus on education, and having weathered a physical, economic, social and emotional storm of unimaginable ferocity – the earthquake of October 8th – should be able to interact with the world outside. And, those of us on the outside would do well to get to know the people of Kashmir. Can anyone argue with this?

In our work, my partners and I are absolutely typical of others in the west – and in much of the east – who manage and direct people and capital. Personally, it is critical to our effectiveness that we can instantly reach the people we need in a variety of ways, and in turn that those people are able to reach us just as quickly and efficiently. And if we need general or specific information from wherever it may reside, we must be able to get it immediately. Further, being able to broadcast our thoughts instantly to any number of selectively grouped individuals gives each of us tremendous ability to influence.

So, through internet technology we are able to instantly send and receive whatever information is needed for decision making. In short, and without discounting the importance of cellular and human-interfaced communications systems and tools, our effectiveness and even our very ability to lead and influence is critically dependant on high-speed broadband internet technology. And, it all boils down to a simple tool that can be made available to the region in a trench.

Broadband internet would offer a prime business opportunity for the region: call centers. To the outside world, wages here would be considered low and, like India, western business would take notice. To the local population, call centers would offer numerous job opportunities and wages would be considered high. I have had experience with call center work in the United States and in Lahore, Pakistan and can say that a large, unexpected effect was that young, educated Pakistanis who moved abroad for higher education and better opportunity found a reason to return: high paying jobs at home.

Azad Kashmir is mineral-rich and there are forces at work to get access to these underground resources. This means pollution and will lead to degradation of the region’s greatest natural resource: the simple beauty of the place. It is what has happened to China and India, for example. Tourism would be good for Azad Kashmir as it would bring new money, new ideas and new opportunities to its people without depleting the region’s natural resources. As it is now, with severely limited internet access, Azad Kashmir will have little success in tourism. People from the outside simply won’t spend time in a place in which they are isolated. Five years ago maybe, but today, never. That is the way of the world now. And, if there is a desire for new business, know that it will absolutely not happen without high-speed broadband internet connectivity. Mr. Ayub says “with high-speed internet connectivity, new business will POUR into Azad Kashmir.” He is not exaggerating. For tourism and for new, clean business, high speed internet capability is literally more important than better roads and more hotels.

Westerners like me would come to live for a while, able to run their businesses back home while enjoying this beautiful place. This is the super-tourist: One who stays for months at a time and even has a second home here. To the westerner, Kashmir is an exotic, mysterious and beautiful place and it would be an adventure and a privilege to settle in for awhile. But, we will not come and stay if we must live in isolation, like hermits.

Azad Kashmir’s counterparts to the east understand the benefits of communicating with the outside world and in contrast, Pakistan’s development over the years has been thwarted by a lack of communication due to language stumbling blocks. Of course, the perfect historic example was the British departure from India and India’s subsequent grasp of the importance of being fluent in English, the language shared by the rest of the world. For the people for Azad Kashmir, embracing up-to-date internet technology is no different.

Despite the lack of connectivity to the outside world, there are currently plans for bringing IT technology and education to Azad Kashmir; the very existence of a national IT department confirms this is being taken seriously. There are good plans for getting Muzaffarabad’s government on-line, for example, and that can be completed with or without a solid backbone to the outside. But, despite the existence of a national IT department, efforts at education, and government’s commitment to upgrading internal efficiencies, the simple lack of high-speed broadband connectivity to the outside will render these efforts a waste of time and money. It’s brain-numbing simple: What Azad Kashmir must have is the technology that will make possible “any and all information, NOW.” It means ditches dug and fiber cable buried. It means the terminal equipment on each end. It means engineers and technicians available to support the system.

My personal background includes high voltage electric transmission/distribution engineering and construction management, internet technology services and human-based call center work. My prime interest and the object of my passion is human-to-human communication. Providing tools to make it more efficient is my work and the thing I love and I come to Azad Kashmir more connected that anyone I know. For how I personally get through the day in the United States, it’s all there: cutting edge wireless, sophisticated internet communication software and devices, and an assortment of human communications specialists available at any time. So, in the West, with these telecommunications tools and specialists, I am able to enormously multiply my personal effectiveness and accomplish great quantities of constructive work. But in Kashmir, right now, I can’t function.

This following real-life illustration makes my point best. My two partners and I want our non-profit foundation to be effective for the people of Azad Kashmir, but the existing internet technology is making it very, very difficult to do that. When my partners and I come back to the region in February, we cannot stay in Muzaffarabad: We must reside in Islamabad in order to use that city’s high-speed internet facilities so we can operate our non-profit foundation and also to manage our business back home in the United States. Four hours from the object of our attention, which is Azad Kashmir, Islamabad has the broadband internet connections we absolutely require. It is a confoundedly straightforward thing: We, and others like us, would much rather spend our time and money in Muzaffarabad and we would do that if it offered high-speed broadband internet connectivity.

The installation of the necessary fiber optic cable can be implemented to functionality within one year (and much, much faster if the imperative is recognized). Now is the time to start the process, despite the other closer-in-time challenges which of course will continue to require our focused attention. The inevitable red tape must be eliminated, outside consultants and engineers must be secured and physical work should begin now and continue through the winter.

I say start the process now: The implementation of fiber-backboned broadband access for Azad Kashmir is relatively simple: This is about digging ditches. Compared to a typical hydro project, the environmental, technical and cost impacts are miniscule but like a hydro project, the benefits will be instant once the system is operational.

We are not recommending a new idea or philosophy that may or may not work. High-speed broadband internet connectivity is technology that is used in progressive societies everywhere because it enhances the life of the people it serves. Its effectiveness has been tested and applied over and over throughout the world. There is no need for Azad Kashmir to wait and, in fact, waiting any longer is a grave “error of omission.”