Life Without a Cell Phone? Karachi Cheers When Service Is Resumed

Imagine New York City with no cellular phones. No million-dollar deals being negotiated by slick-haired stock brokers squawking into their handsets. No chirping electronic rings. No distracted drivers weaving into the next lane.

Until about three weeks ago, Karachi, the economic hub of Pakistan - which at one time used to hum with cellular activity - was just such a city: no cell phones and no pagers.

For 18 months, the government banned these gadgets because it suspected terrorists were using them to carry out a reign of violence on the city. Even many of Karachi's pay phones were turned off for the same reason.

But the shutdown couldn't quite quell the entrepreneurial spirit of the city's residents. Suddenly, smuggled long-range cordless phones became hot-selling items, with prices running at triple their regular rate. And in some of the poorer neighborhoods, shopkeepers made small fortunes by charging double the phone company's rates for local calls made from their shops.

The plan appeared to work. Violence dropped dramatically. But pressure from phone companies and cell-phone dependent citizens has pushed authorities to cautiously begin restoring the services.

This move to restore services comes as a great relief to the city's business community. Nasir Bukhari, Karachi's leading stock broker, says, "Communications is [a] vital ingredient for a successful business. We are now back to normal."

Stock brokers and traders at Karachi's stock market - Pakistan's largest - have once again begun to rely heavily on their cell phones and pagers to do business. And bankers and businessmen have begun to use these gadgets to cut deals and organize meetings.

"Whenever you take communications out, it makes a difference because it sends a negative signal especially to businessmen," says Ikram Sehgal, head of Karachi's Security and Management Services, a private security company.

Yet, the decision to restore the services has followed weeks of debate between Pakistan's three mobile telephone services and the government. The companies want compensation to make up for their losses. So far, there's no word on a settlement. But in spite of these disputes, businesses are celebrating.

The restoration of these services has followed a close screening of users. Last year, the government ordered all mobile telephone subscribers to provide detailed personal information along with two personal references. This was an attempt to update records so they could keep track of suspects using cell phones for criminal activities.

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