Going offline

  • Shutting down free WiFi cutting off nose to spite the face?

The Punjab government managed to put itself on the wrong side of history by shutting down 200 free WiFi hotspots operating throughout the province, including in educational institutions, hospitals and government offices. The immediate benefit is apparently the Rs 195 million being spent on the service, while there is the political benefit of ending something started by the previous government, which it did in 2016. First of all, the Punjab government has ended a useful service, which had become all the more essential after the inception of online learning because of the covid-19 pandemic, and after the government itself began to move its operations online. Many students and government servants will now be forced to pay for their internet connections, which they can ill afford.

The facility had helped promote the concept of internet access as a public good, and thus to be provided by the government. Thus shutting down the service is like shutting down the government’s environmental protection apparatus. Free and clean air is supposed to be a public good, and the government has taken responsibility to ensure the public continues to enjoy it free of cost without it being put at risk by factories emitting noxious fumes. The government will not benefit much by this move, while students, government employees and ordinary citizens will have to bear the cost of the internet. The only possible beneficiaries are the Internet Service Providers, who no longer have a free competitor to prevent them making abnormal profits out of a facility which should be free in the first place.

The Punjab government has yet to make clear what substitute it will provide to the many who will have to choose between the sort of Internet access which might mean continuing to get an education, and that education. It has also not indicated how it will make better use of the Rs 195 million it will save; not an inconsiderable sum, but hardly backbreaking. It is a myopic step not to have been expected of a party which is known for its Internet savvy.

The Editorial Department of Pakistan Today can be contacted at: [email protected].
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