COVID-19 Reveals the Divide in Internet Access in Pakistan

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SEATTLE, Washington — On March 13, Pakistan announced the shut down of every school and educational institution throughout the country as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, more than 300,000 schools and universities have remained closed. The pandemic has not only affected healthcare systems in the country but has also revealed the divide in internet access in Pakistan.

Digital Divide

Millions of students have remained at home since the closing of schools. Some private schools have shifted their teaching completely online. Private school students have access to the technology and platforms necessary for digital learning. This has allowed them to continue their education with little difficulty. However, this is not the case for millions of other Pakistani students who do not have access to the internet or any technological device to continue their learning digitally.

Internet access in Pakistan remains one of the greatest issues that has arisen from the pandemic. According to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, approximately one million students have consistent access to the internet. In a country where only 36% of the population has access to either fixed or mobile broadband, academics have been completely halted for those without internet access. This may lead to substantial repercussions. The main consequence would be many students falling behind in school.

Inaccessibility of Internet

The main problem surrounding internet access in Pakistan is that it is inaccessible to many people who live in areas where there is a lack of internet coverage. Even if there is internet access, it remains unaffordable to many. This causes problems for people whose jobs and education have shifted online. About 35% of Pakistan, mainly rural areas, does not have any internet infrastructure such as  3G/4G towers, fibre optics or even DSL transmission lines in place, highlighting a rural-urban disparity. At least 65% of Pakistan’s population resides in these rural areas with minimal or no internet access.

Private versus Public Schools

In order to prevent the spread of the virus, the Pakistani government has ordered all universities to shift their classes online. While private universities can afford to completely transition to digital learning, many public universities, where students of low- and middle-income families are enrolled, have been unable to continue their teaching. Due to this, Twitter campaigns such as #ShameOnTelecomSector and #WeRejectOnlineEdu have been trending in the country where university students have been voicing their opinions. People are asserting that online education is not an option given the cost and absence of high-quality internet. Students in rural regions in provinces such as Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), Interior Sindh and Gilgit-Baltistan have been complaining about internet issues.

Students returning to their homes in Balochistan and KPK after the closing of educational institutions have been impacted more than others. Students in these provinces have been protesting through rallies, petitions in high courts, demonstrations and even hunger strikes. However, they have had little success. Students have even been subject to arrests and violence as was the case in Quetta, Balochistan during a June 24 protest against online education.

Internet Access varies by Province

Internet access in Pakistan varies from province to province. Out of 32 districts in the province of Balochistan, nine do not have any internet access at all. In other districts, internet access is poor due to the lack of proper fibre optic transmission lines. Moreover, only 5% of the population in the province of KPK has access to broadband facilities. Many students have moved to urban areas of Pakistan where the internet is cheap and available to try to attend online classes. However, this jeopardizes their safety due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even teachers in these areas have been struggling with the prospect of online classes. Many lack the proper resources and devices to teach online classes without having to spend large amounts of money.

To address these issues, the Pakistani government has been implementing various schemes and solutions. For younger students that have access to television, the government has created a channel specifically for distance learning known as “Teleschool,” which they launched on April 13. The World Bank provided a $5 million grant to support this educational channel. In addition to this, Shafqat Mehmood, the Educational Minister of Pakistan, has announced that the government is working on a radio school solution that will provide learning to students who reside in the remote areas of Pakistan.

The government of India is taking steps to provide education to those who lack internet access. Increasing internet access in Pakistan will require time and capital and it may be years before affordable internet is available to all students and families throughout the country.

Abbas Raza
Photo: Unsplash

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