News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Friday, 6 March 2009

The mobile phone: the tool of freedom fighter and terrorist alike

These are turbulent times for some mobile operators in South Asia. Earlier this week, India's oldest communications service provider, state-owned BSNL, had to shut down all of its mobile network base stations along a 500 km stretch of the border with Nepal. According to an Economic Times article, this was due to security concerns. "All the BTS towers of BSNL mobile established in all Nepal bordering districts including Basti, Balrampur, Bahraich, Gorakhpur, Shrawasti, Siddharthnagar and Maharajganj have been jammed," a Government source said on condition of anonymity." By taking this step we have tried to chop off a helping hand of those involved in anti-India activities on Indo-Nepal border," the official added.

This comes very soon after the mobile operators of Bangladesh lost revenues during the recent mutiny by members of the Bangladesh Rifles regiment. In a Daily Telegraph report, I read about the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission asking the country's cellcos to cut off services.

Further east, the tiny minority of Burmese citizens with access to mobile services had services suspended in during the 2007 protests led by Buddhist monks.

Even for those of us lucky enough to live in quite stable countries, it is easy to imagine how mobile devices could be used to accelerate the spread of dissent during times of unrest. The Burmese Government certainly takes no chances. Services are provided by a lone operator - the state-owned Myanmar P&T - to just 0.59% of the population (by December 2008), according to the World Cellular Information Service. It will not surprise many readers to see the close correlation between very low mobile penetration and a country ranking right at the bottom of the world press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. Burma is ranked 170 out of 173. Other countries in the bottom five are Cuba (2.93% mobile penetration), North Korea (0.02%) and Eritrea (2.13%).

More encouraging is the 19.51% mobile penetration rate of Turkmenistan. The Central Asian, former Soviet Republic was until recently notable for a long list of peculiar restrictions placed on its citizens. Former President Saparmurat Niyazov enforced a ban on satellite dishes, beards, long hair, ballet, opera and recorded music. These restrictions are now being gradually relaxed by the new President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who came to power after the death of his predecessor in December 2006. Although Turkmenistan continues to attract criticism as a repressive one-party state, the relatively more open society since the passing of the country's first President seems to correlate with the steady increase in the take up of mobile services. Penetration was just 4.40% around the time the Türkmenbaşy died in office. A year later this figure had doubled, growing faster still during 2008.

I am sure many applaud the mobile phone and Internet access as being useful tools for anyone seeking to weaken the grip of a repressive regime. These sames technologies, however, are equally useful to those keen to change the world in ways which do not meet with approval of the western media - hence the network suspensions in Bangladesh and on the India-Nepal border.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comment. I choose to moderate comments, but only remove obvious spam and content I deem to be needlessly inflammatory.