Gurez: As the world explores better ways to expand internet reach and data speed through mobile networks, a mobile network is this valley is still a dream.
Villagers here entirely dependent on Digital Satellite Phone Terminal (DSPT) devices, commonly called satellite phones, for communication.
A single device caters two or three villages.
The devices were provided in these border villages by government run cellular company BSNL in 2007 through a scheme to connect remote areas.
The lone mobile tower in the area, also erected by BSNL, is located at Dawar village, the administrative headquarters of the Gurez valley. The connectivity, locals allege, remains poor.
“To operate a mobile phone tower, it costs one crore rupees here,” says Sundeep Singh Bali, Sub-Divisional Magistrate Gurez. However, the officials are optimistic about cellular connectivity in this area that has huge presence of Indian Army.
“We have taken up the issue with the army and they have given permission to two private companies for using Army’s towers for their signals,” Bali said. These towers are being used by the army for their own communication. Airtel and Jio have been given permission to set up their frequency band on them.
“This will change the things completely in the area,” he said adding that it can still take more than a year time. For now, people are taking their chances with the satellite phones.
“Whenever I need to call someone, I have to travel four kilometers to the nearest phone post,” says Bilal Ahmad, a postgraduate in history from Kaspot, a small hamlet in the lap of mountains near Line of Control in Tulail sector.
Bilal travels to Barnai village to call his friend in Srinagar. Many a times he finds the shop, which has the satellite phones facility, closed. The phone booth, a wooden structure, is run by Bashir Ahmad Khan, a daily wager in PHE department.
“There is always an uncertainty. You never know what fault you will encounter. Sometimes the shop remains closed and when it is open, the phone has some technical issues,” says Bilal, who has to visit Bashir’s house to find him.
Bashir returns to the shop, only to tell Bilal that the phone is not working. “I will have to change its batteries first,” Bashir says. “Nearly three villages are dependent on this phone and even Army soldiers regularly come here to make calls.” Every day, Bashir says, around fifty villagers visit his shop for using the phone.
“Earlier I would charge one rupee per minute but now I charge 2.5 rupees per minute,” he says.
But keeping the services going is not easy, he says. “It is a challenge every day – bad weather or strong winds stop it from working. Another challenge is replacing the battery every day,” he adds.
Electricity, supplied from diesel generators to the area, is available for only five hours a day.
But the most challenging task for Bashir is paying bills every month. “The average bill is between rupees 1200 to 1400 per month, for which we need to travel all the way to Srinagar,” he says. To reach Srinagar, 150 kilometers from the village, he has to spend two thousand rupees extra and spare two days.
“I send my son to Srinagar every month to pay the bills. He has to stay for the night in the city and travel back the next day,” Bashir says.
Residents of the area say that they have been demanding the government for cellular phone connectivity and internet services for years, but “no one listens”.
“It is really pathetic that we are yet to get connected by cellular phone when the world is moving beyond 4G,” said another student who studies at the Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST) in Awantipore, 25 Kilometers south if Srinagar.
“Whenever I come home it looks I am in jail. Whenever a notice is posted by the university, students get to know by the internet or newspaper. But neither of them reach Gurez,” he said.