India’s internet shutdowns costing mobile carriers big money

Protests over India’s new citizenship law is costing mobile companies $350,000 every hour: Lobby group.

Protests Against A New Citizenship Law
The Indian government is struggling to contain growing nationwide protests against a new federal religion-based citizenship law that’s seen at least 24 people killed in clashes between police and demonstrators [File: T. Narayan/Bloomberg]

India‘s mobile operators are losing around 24.5 million rupees ($350,000) in revenue every hour they are forced to suspend internet services on government orders to control protests against a new citizenship law, a top lobby group said on Friday.

Countrywide protests have raged for three weeks after India’s parliament passed legislation that gives minorities from neighbouring Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh a path to citizenship but excludes Muslims.

That, coupled with a plan for a national register of citizens, are seen by critics as anti-Muslim moves by the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

To quell protests, the government has deployed thousands of police, as well ordered mobile data shutdowns intermittently at times when people have used social media, such as Instagram and TikTok, to wage parallel battles online. Such internet suspensions have been criticised by internet freedom activists.

On Friday, mobile internet was ordered shut off in at least 18 districts in northern Uttar Pradesh state, a telecoms industry source told Reuters.

A Reuters witness received a text message from an internet service provider announcing that home broadband services on the outskirts of the capital, New Delhi, will be unavailable for 24 hours, until the morning of December 28.

Indians consume an average of 9.8 gigabytes of data a month on their smartphones, the highest in the world, according to Swedish telecoms gearmaker Ericsson. The country is the biggest market by users for social media firm Facebook and its messenger WhatsApp.

Internet shutdowns should not be first course of action, said the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which counts mobile carriers Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea, and Reliance Industries’ Jio Infocomm as its members.

“We’ve highlighted the cost of these shutdowns,” COAI director general Rajan Mathews told Reuters. “According to our computation at the end of 2019, with the increase in online activities, we believe the cost [of internet shutdowns] is close to 24.5 million rupees for an hour of internet shutdown.”

The revenue losses will pile on to the woes of India’s telecoms sector, bruised by a price war and saddled with a combined $13bn in overdue payments following a Supreme Court ruling in October.

Bharti, Vodafone Idea, and Reliance Jio did not respond to emails seeking comment.

The bans follow an unprecedented shutdown of internet and text messaging services in parts of Delhi last week, widening a communications clampdown in restive areas stretching from disputed Kashmir to the northeast.

Internet services in Indian-administered Kashmir were suspended for over 140 days since New Delhi relegated its status to a federally administered territory from a state, making it the longest such shutdown in a democracy, according to digital rights group Access Now.