In August 2022, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), Government of India removed restrictions on telecom connectivity in border areas by amending licensing norms. This move is a big boost to connectivity in all border regions and increases civilian access to various resources. By looking at this latest DoT move and its impact, particularly along the Line of Control (LoC), this commentary argues that while some challenges and constraints remain, its benefits are immense for civilians in border areas along the LoC, which divides Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

The amendment to DoT regulations

Four key changes have been made to the DoT regulations.

First, until recently, telecom providers in border regions had to install special technical infrastructure to fade out signals. Base stations, cell sites, and radio transmitters had to be installed as far away from the border as possible. According to the latest notification from the DoT, this is now not necessary.

Surya Valliappan Krishna
Surya Valliappan Krishna is associate director of projects and operations at Carnegie India.
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Second, there is no longer any mandate for review and approval of telecom services (like setting up base stations, cell sites, and radio transmitters) by the army in areas within 10 kilometers of the International Border (IB) between Akhnoor and Pathankot, LoC, and Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Third, the latest change in rules also enables installation of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication technology in border areas without additional army or DoT approval. The M2M technology is a key component of the 5G-Internet of Things (IoT) revolution, signaling that telecom service delivery in border areas will not be of any lesser quality than in non-border areas.

And finally, the new circular also allows for “ease of doing business” by removing the clause as per which the army or security agencies may carry out periodic surprise checks to ensure compliance.

While the earlier regulations were in place for security considerations like signal breach incidents, it is unclear what precisely prompted this latest change in DoT norms. One of the reasons for updated regulations, especially along the LoC and International Border, could be the reduced number of ceasefire incidents from PoK, which in turn gave impetus to the state to undertake developmental activity.

The opportunity

While the change in norms apply to all border regions, the benefit this poses for the millions of civilians living alongside the LoC is of great significance. The DoT’s circular makes telecommunications in border areas much more accessible. Some reports indicated that Indians living in border regions, including LoC, connected to networks on the other side of the border due to restrictions on the Indian side. Now districts along the LoC, such as Kupwara, Rajouri, and Poonch, will be better connected to domestic networks.

In many border districts, there are a number of villages located very close to the zero line. In the past, the civilians living in border districts have demanded better connectivity for ease of daily life and livelihood. Local authorities in border districts have identified the lack of telecom connectivity as one of the reasons for lack of progress in these areas. The benefits of better connectivity are plenty—for example, in the villages of Machil, Dudi, and Posh Wari in Kupwara district, better connectivity led to greater citizen empowerment. For some residents, this meant access to market prices for their crop to be sold in the local mandi; for others, it meant that medical help was easily available in case of an emergency.

Tourism has been identified as one of the main vehicles of development along the border. Building on the recent interest in border tourism along the LoC following the reaffirmation of the India-Pakistan ceasefire and the subsequent lull in cross border violence, the presence of telecom connectivity along the LoC can only contribute to the region’s perception as a tourist destination.

In Rajouri district, for example, the district development commissioner took steps to identify “dark zones” and “shadow zones,” referring to areas of poor or no connectivity, so that steps can be taken for the provision of uniform connectivity across the district. In a region that is largely characterized by uncertainty, fear, and anxiety, the lack of telecom connectivity added to a sense of helplessness and isolation because often during crises civilians found themselves deprived of network connectivity and therefore the necessary resources needed to handle the crisis. This included the inability to reach out to familial networks or healthcare services.

Poor or no mobile network also impacted the educational opportunities available to students. In 2020, when the world moved to an online learning system, students in border districts like Poonch had difficulty accessing curriculum, attending classes, and downloading content. Some reports indicated that students in the Lachipora belt of Uri had to trek at least 2 kilometers to get better network connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic. Better network connectivity means that the students in around 600 schools in border villages spanning Kathua to Poonch will now have better access to learning resources.

In a region already suffering the consequences of remoteness, cross-border kinetic activity, scarce economic opportunities, and limited access to financial infrastructure, the lack of connectivity had further distanced its inhabitants from the rest of the country.

The challenge

While it is commendable that the border region will have better access to telecom services, J&K as a whole has also seen innumerable internet shutdowns and communication blockades in the recent past. By some accounts, India has seen a total of 683 internet shutdowns since 2012, of which 414 were in J&K. The other risk to telecom connectivity in border districts is restrictions following infiltration attempts. During infiltration attempts from across the border into J&K, mobile and internet services are often shut down in the entire sector. While this is often a necessary security measure applied to the entire region, shutdowns and communications blockades affect border areas more because of pre-existing limitations posed by remoteness and the reduced availability of and access to resources, such as healthcare, education, and economic opportunity, when compared to non-border areas of J&K. For example, compared to urban areas, the border region has a fewer number of bank branches and ATMs—in this context, the benefits of telecom and internet connectivity with respect to services like mobile banking and access to financial infrastructure can be immense.

The availability of telecom services with the risk of frequent communications and internet shutdowns can affect the efficacy of the recent DoT move in border regions.

The way forward

There is no doubt that the recent DoT move is in line with the central government’s commitment to ensure development in all border areas. The timing of this announcement is particularly important, especially along the LoC, since levels of cross-border violence have been low since February 2021, according to data released by the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs.

For this telecom connectivity move to stay in place and not be reversed due to security reasons, peace along the border is perhaps the most integral factor. This latest move could also prompt and catalyze further developmental activity along the border.

To the millions of civilians​ living along the LoC whose lives are significantly marked by violence, isolation, fear, and apathy, the latest DoT amendment surely sends the right signal.