The internet is often in the news in Jammu and Kashmir. After abrogating Article 370 on August 5, 2019, the central administration suspended internet services in Jammu and Kashmir, fearing for the law and order situation. Months later, in the first week of March 2020, the authorities restored internet services, but restricted the speed to 2G.
We recently tested the speed of the internet on Airtel and Jio, two internet providers in India. We saw a Kashmiri user receive 100-110 kb/s internet speed if his phone displays five network bars (indicating a strong signal) and 40-60kb/s on two to three network bars. At the same time, we saw YouTube is able to stream only 144p – 240p. But when a user connects to the internet, the speed continually decreases; the user will have to switch the phone to flight mode to refresh the network to receive better speed. A normal webpage takes two minutes to load in mobile mode; if the user uses desktop mode on the phone, the webpage takes four minutes to load. Opening an e-paper is really tough and needs a lot of patience.
The 4G internet ban has affected everyone in Jammu and Kashmir, especially over the past few months. Educational institutions across the country are closed due to COVID-19. The administration has already directed schools to start online classes to help students during the COVID-19 lockdown, but Kashmiri students are finding it very tough to continue their education because of the low-speed internet. These students are not able to connect to the online apps (like Zoom, Google Meet etc) commonly used to host online lectures. The teachers are also facing immense issues to reach out to their students.
For teachers, the online apps are not a viable option. Many faculty members try to proceed with online lectures but the low interest speed results in many issues. In one instance, while testing the Google Meet app, the user at the other end tried four different meeting links in five minutes. The user reported that on every link, he tried to connect but the app would forcefully close down due to low internet speed.
“I cannot give lectures online due to low internet speed. The second option left with me is to record the video and then upload it on social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube. I record a video of 10 minutes and the uploading … is taking place in 3-4 hours,” says Jahangir Ahmad, a private school teacher who has been directed to record teaching videos by his school administration. Jahangir further says that he tried to send a 30-minute video to his students but it took five days to become accessible.
Students and faculty members who are trying to pursue online courses from massive open online courses (MOOCs) platform are also struggling. One such user, Mudasir Ahmad, who hails from Anantnag in Jammu and Kashmir, reports that he is not able to watch the video lessons on the SWAYAM platform. Ahmad further says that the video continues to buffer due to low internet speed and it takes about 45 minutes to watch a 10-15 minute video.
Due to COVID-19 all the students from Jammu and Kashmir who were studying elsewhere have arrived back at their homes. Among them are a good number of research scholars who are now trying their best to work from home. The scholars are also facing issues due to low internet speed. Sabzar Ahmad, who is pursuing a Ph.D. from a central university, says that he is totally dependent on the internet for research work. Without proper internet services, he is unable to attend online classes or lectures.
The research scholars are perhaps even more dependent on internet access. To continue their research, they need to download papers and many other content from various websites, but pages often crash with the error message, “The webpage took too long to respond.” And even if the website opens, downloading a paper might take hours, resulting in much wasted time.
Many other scholars who are ready for the submission or final presentation of their research work face the same problem, but in reverse: emailing their content to their research supervisor is taking too long. One such user Arif Ahmad (a pseudonym) says that one morning he received a WhatsApp message from his supervisor asking him to send a chapter of his thesis by email. Arif says, “I tried to open Gmail on my laptop but it was responding with a temporary error. Finally after 3 hours, I was able to mail him the entire document.”
One of main justifications for the internet restriction in Jammu and Kashmir is social network sites, which are often blamed for threatening law and order. To prevent casting too wide a net, the central administration should start whitelisting websites for 4G services. Students and teachers should be given top priority and all the academic sites should be restored. The region’s students and teachers are lagging behind due to internet shutdowns and slowdowns. As the security situation is not going to improve soon, the administration should restore full internet services in the interest of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.
As a review of the 4G internet is scheduled for June 17, students and teachers are hopeful of restoring the services in the area.
Ishfaq Majid and Shazia Kouser are Jammu and Kashmir-based research scholars at the School of Education, Central University of Gujarat. Their writings have appeared in The Diplomat, Economic and Political Weekly, The Rising Kashmir, Medium, Qatar Tribune, Mainstream Weekly, South Asia Journal and Café Dissensus. Follow them on Twitter: @ishfaqmajid07 and @ShaziaKouser06.