The Punjab government permanently shut down the facility of free Wi-Fi for Public in the province apparently to get rid of the heavy subsidy.

The Punjab government on Saturday permanently shut down the facility of free Wi-Fi in the province apparently to get rid of the heavy subsidy it had to pay for its provision to the public.

The Punjab Wi-Fi project aimed at provision of free internet service to the public at 200 different places of the province was launched in Dec 2016 by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government.

The purpose of setting up public Wi-Fi hotspots in the province was to bridge the digital divide by providing free, easy and reliable internet access at major public places.

The Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) had set up 250 free Wi-Fi hotspots in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Faisalabad, Multan, Bahawalpur and Murree districts. The Wi-Fi hotspots were set up at educational and government buildings, public parks, markets, hospitals, railway stations, airports and bus stations.

Trained staff was posted at the call centres to provide technical support and complaint handling and resolution round the clock in these districts.

The highest use of these free hotspots was recorded at hospitals, followed by universities and colleges. The facility also enabled on-field government officials of various departments to utilise centrally-maintained online services in a relatively seamless manner.

The users were authenticated by their IDs and mobile numbers, after which they received a code via SMS to connect to the free internet. With the hotspots gaining popularity among the citizens, data hogging was avoided by making the internet subscription time-barred.

Video streaming and downloading were banned to ensure a “positive usage” of the facility, whereas time and location logs were maintained for security purposes. Each hotspot had a screen which displayed total number of users connected, bandwidth and usage statistics.

Thousands of students, research scholars and journalists had been deprived of free internet service after closure of the project by the provincial government, an official source said.

He said the Information Technology Department had also started negotiations with the PTCL for the provision of free internet service following the closure of the project.

He said the government was spending Rs195 million annually on the project and 1,400,000 people had subscribed to the free service in the province.

A student, Ali Raza, criticised the closure of free Wi-Fi service and said the private companies were already charging heavily from the consumers for the facility and all students could not afford to pay for it.

He said because of the coronavirus, the students and teachers needed free Wi-Fi to continue the online classes and closure of the project would increase their problems.

A citizen, Naveed Malik, said the government should not provide free internet in parks and hotels but measures should be taken to provide the facility to the students in the educational institutions.

PITB spokesperson Ammarul Islam confirmed closure of the free Wi-Fi in the province, citing heavy subsidy as the reason.

However, PITB Chairman Azfar Manzoor was not available for his comment despite repeated attempts.

Originally published at Dawn news