National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has completed initial inquiry against former Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in Rs. 140 billion grey traffic scandal, sources revealed.
Ashraf had approved ICH policy (International Clearing House) allegedly to create cartel of 14 LDI companies, after which international incoming call rates had increased to 8.8 cents from 3 cents per minute that ultimately resulted into more demand for grey traffic.
Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MOITT), that remained successful in voiding ICH through Supreme Court, had moved a reference to the NAB in this regard.
According to sources, NAB has completed initial inquiry in this regard and summoned former Prime Minister last week; however he did not appear before the Bureau. Now NAB has sent questioner to former Prime Minister’s house address and in case of failure to submit a reply, arrest warrant may be issued.
ICH regime, a consortium of Long Distance International (LDI) operators formed ICH to terminate all international traffic through a single gateway exchange, eliminating competition from the market was introduced by the previous government in August 2012 (through ICH Directive), upon active lobbying of LDI operators. Under the ICH regime, rate for international call termination was fixed at 8.8 US cent per minute that resulted into increased revenues for LDI operators.
Thus call rates for calling to Pakistan from abroad increased manifold leading to unprecedented rise in grey traffic and pushed consumers towards grey channels and over the top (OTT) services which were never the first choice for consumers before ICH.
The Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif had constituted a high level of Steering Committee, which after extensive meetings with the stakeholders concluded ICH regime to be the main cause behind increase in grey traffic.
Finally, ICH Policy was withdrawn by the Ministry of IT on the recommendations of PTA vide a revised policy directive dated 17.06.2014 to take effect from 01.08.2014.
The withdrawal of ICH Policy was challenged by some LDI operators, having vested interest, through a well orchestrated legal battle at many fronts. Initially four LDI operators approached the Sindh High Court and obtained stay order against withdrawal of ICH regime.
By the time government filed replies, another LDI operator approached the Sindh High Court through another civil suit and obtained another stay order followed by three more cases filed in Sindh High Court. The government successfully defended these cases in Sindh High Court leading to their withdrawal or dismissal by the court.
However, these LDI operators challenged the order of the Sindh High Court vacating stay granted to them and while the arguments before Sindh High Court were at final stage, another LDI operator approached Lahore High Court and obtained yet another ex-parte stay order on 04.12.2014 which was extended on successive dates of hearings.
The government invoked the Appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court against the stay orders issued by the Lahore High Court and Sindh High Court. The Supreme Court set aside the stay orders on 24.02.2015 while observing that the ICH regime was causing unjust enrichment of the LDI operators at the cost of telecom consumers.
The government withdrew ICH policy and de-regulated Approved Settlement Rate (ASR), which had resulted in significant decline in grey trafficking.
Today (in October 2015) white international incoming traffic has reached 1.5 billion minutes per month as compared to 367 million recorded in November 2014.
Further it gave great incentives to expatriate Pakistanis living outside the country as call rates dropped significantly.
When calling rates were 8.8 US cents per minute the total reported traffic was around 450 million minutes per month despite of best efforts of the PTA and Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to conduct raids and block thousands of SIMs that were involved in grey traffic.
According to the data made available during the year 2015 a total of 68 raids were conducted by PTA and FIA. During the raids conducted in different areas of the country, 257 persons including seven foreigners were apprehended and 106 gateways were confiscated. A total of 1.97 million SIMs have so far been blocked.
However, according to the sources, it is next to impossible to reach the pre-ICH regime of two billion white minutes per month as about 500 million call minutes have shifted to OTT services (Skype, tango, viber etc.) and may be hard to recover. Thus, the legal traffic is expected to stabilize at around 1.5 billion minutes per month.