“Revolutionary Development of Telecom in Gilgit-Baltistan and SCO’s Historic Role”
By Raja Noor ul Amin
Special Communications Organization (SCO) is a government organization which provides modern telecom services to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). The SCO began its journey 44 years ago when the Government of Pakistan entrusted it with the responsibility of providing communication facilities in the areas of Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJ&K) and GB on 16 July 1976. The organization faced challenges with limited resources in providing telecommunication connectivity to all remote areas of Gilgit-Baltistan in extremely difficult and harsh conditions. Initially SCO introduced a system of (CB) exchange to make it possible for the people here to communicate with each other regionally, nationally and internationally. In order to extend this process to more remote areas, the SCO workers worked hard day and night and during this time, 72 SCO devotees also sacrificed their lives. With years of hard work, SCO has today become the only leading telecom operator in Gilgit-Baltistan providing all the telecom services ie landline (S-Phone), GSM (SCOM), Internet (DXX / DSL), CDMA and 3G / 4G. The SCO has reached a number of milestones in delivering state-of-the-art world’s changing technology to consumers and has undertaken several important projects to modernize telecom in all GB regions.
In 2004, SCO undertook a major project of installation and expansion of OFC from Rawalpindi to Gilgit and later from Gilgit to Skardu, Hunza, Ghizar and Astore. With the completion of this important project, more than 40 state-of-the-art digital exchanges were established in all GB districts. Through a stable and integrated landline services, communication of all remote areas has not only become much easier, but has also provided an unlimited and fastest link to the people here at the regional, national and international levels. SCO added a new chapter to the history of the region and also crossed an important milestone by launching the first ever telecom service GSM SCOM Mobile Service in Gilgit-Baltistan on August 14, 2006. Mobile service was not only a long-standing desire of the people here but also an important need. SCO has put into practice the long-held dream and need of the people. After its launch in a few areas of Gilgit and Skardu, the SCOM mobile service was very popular and in view of the growing popularity and need in the area, several projects were launched to expand the GSM system to the corners of the region. Now SCOM mobile service has been provided in all the districts of Gilgit-Baltistan as well as in remote and difficult areas like Shamshal, Hispar, Askuli, Phandar,ManiMarg, Chaporson, Deosai, Yuching and Tero where no other telecom operator can even think of going. SCO has not only expanded its network in GB but is also constantly working to further improve the performance and quality of media and services in all these areas. There are currently more than 150 SCO towers operating across the GB, more than the total number of towers on the rest of the network. While the number of active users of SCOM Mobile is more than four and a half lakh and it is estimated that SCOM Mobile has coverage for 90% of the population of GB.
SCO continues to work on a number of important projects to make the people of GB part of the ever-changing modern telecom of the developed world by providing all its services to its customers at very low rates with high quality. Continuing this trend, in response to the needs of the GB public, the first broadband in GB (DSL / DXX) Internet service was launched in 2007 under the name of SNet. The launch of this service has not only helped all GB educational institutions, public and semi-government and private, the banking system, including the tourism and economics (business) sector, to stay online, but also their daily needs and Development has become possible through this digital system. The SNet (DSL / DXX) service has rapidly expanded to all remote areas of GB and continues to do so.
Continuing its development journey in the region, SCO successfully launched 3G / 4G service for the first time in the history of GB in August 2017 after adapting its networks to modern systems and provided almost 3 months trial service to the customers. This service became very popular among the people and it was well received by the people. SCO made a formal request to the PTA to allow the SCO to continue providing 3G / 4G service in GB to the people regularly and permanently. However, contrary to the SCO’s request and the PTA’s order to shut down the service, the SCO obtained a stay order from the Islamabad High Court to continue the 3G / 4G service, which is still in force today. Therefore, SCO has continued 3G / 4G service in GB and is rapidly expanding this service to all remote areas under various projects.
In the context of CPEC, Pak-China OFC project is certainly a milestone for SCO and launched in May 2016, this important project has already been completed ahead of schedule, Alhamdulillah. International traffic is running successfully on it. It is noteworthy that only the people of GB are benefiting from this cable in the whole of Pakistan. This project has helped to expand the media in GB and increase the quality. Similarly, a very important project of SCO in the form of SCO Technical Training Institute (STTI) for GB was approved by the government in 2016 which could surely change the fate of the region. Unfortunately, this project has been delayed due to local disruptions. Hopefully, work on it will resume soon.
Over the next few months, 65 new 4G towers will be installed in different areas of GB to upgrade the existing 2G / 3G service to 4G and expand its network to the rest of the region., including a project to provide full coverage on the entire KKH from the Basri check post in the GB area to Khunjerab Top under the seamless project. Recently, Director General SCO Major General Ali Farhan on the occasion of his visit to Gilgit said that the fruits of the steps we are taking today for the development of telecom in the region will be visible to you within the next one year. It also includes the process of expanding network to better and more modern lines in different areas of GB. However, due to the current global epidemic, where other sectors in the country have faced difficulties, SCO system has also been severely affected and the network of the organization has come under pressure, otherwise all these projects would have been completed to a large extent. But SCO did not let the process of providing services to the people of GB slowdown in difficult circumstances and provided relief of Rs.10 million in the form of various data packages for its customers. Thus, under the Prime Minister’s Ehsaas Program, the SCO once again proved its public friendliness by distributing a hefty sum of Rs 650 Million.
SCO is going to set up IT Parks and Incubation Centers based on modern technology for the people and students of Gilgit-Baltistan. In this regard, most of the work of IT Center at Konadas Gilgit has been completed and work on this project will be started in other areas soon. In this regard a MoU has been signed with KIU. Similarly, a major project of Triple Play Service is recently launched to provide Phone, Internet and Digital TV facilities to every household through OFC in four major cities of Gilgit, Skardu, Hunza and Chilas in GB. In the next phase, the project will be expanded to more GB areas. With the completion of all these projects, new avenues of development will open up in the region in the near future. In view of the difficulties faced by GB students during current global epidemic, SCO has set up Student Community Centers in various educational institutions and students in the area, where the fastest free internet service has been provided for assistance in teaching and online classes. For the convenience of students till now more than 13 Students community Centers have started functioning in Gilgit baltistan and the project will soon be extended to more GB districts.
SCO has not only given a new impetus to the telecom sector in the region but has also played a significant role in promoting social, tourism, educational and other healthy activities including sports, be it the Shandur Polo Festival, the Tour de Khunjerab. Whether it’s sports competitions in the region, efforts to encourage those who have made a name for the region nationally and internationally, or initiatives to highlight painting and photography talent nationally. SCO has set an example for all other organizations by providing support for all these tasks. Today, 44 years later, the SCO is playing a leading role in continuing the process of providing state-of-the-art telecom services in GB so that every area and every citizen here can use these telecom facilities. These SCO initiatives reflect the organization’s efforts to live up to its commitment and the aspirations of SCO Network users. Courageous military and civil officers, engineers and soldiers of SCO have worked tirelessly day and night and with constant struggle and determination have led this organization on the path to success and brought it to a place and quality where it is not possible for any other organization. Our commitment will continue in the future and we will succeed in maintaining the trust of the people of the area and our customers with our hard work and service (InshaAllah).