Special Communications Organization (SCO) is a leading telcomm operator in Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan ever since its raising in 1976. SCO with its public service mandate is providing all brands of telcomm facilities to the local populace without much concern for profit generation. Despite ruggedness of terrain and challenging environments, the telcomm facilities being extended by SCO are comparable to those being provided in other parts of the country. In view of its technical expertise and experience, SCO was vested with the responsibility to execute Pak - China OFC project for establishment of first ever land based connectivity with China. This is the only project so far planned and executed under the ambit of CPEC and declared Early Harvest Project by Government of Pakistan (GoP).
Pakistan’s connectivity with the world is through undersea cables all having landing points in Karachi. Disturbance in these cables had caused great financial loss besides causing international connectivity issues in the past. Moreover, other security and strategic aspects had necessitated establishment of alternate international connectivity link to reduce dependence on submarine cable systems and addressing security concerns besides meeting strategic requirements of sensitive regions. In this purview it was perceived to establish high capacity link through China by deployment of optical fiber cable from Rawalpindi to Pak-China border, Khunjerab.
The concept of interconnectivity due to its diversified dimensions always remained on agenda during higher level interactions between the two countries. The foundation stone of envisaged connectivity was laid when a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on cross-border connectivity was signed between two state owned incumbent operators; SCO and China Telcomm on 13 Jul 2007 followed by Construction and Maintenance Agreement (C&MA) in June 2010.
The initial undertaking by signing of MoU, after passing through initial phases, reached to a stage of consolidation when a project on cross- border connectivity between Pakistan and China was approved by GoP in December 2010. The project entailed laying of OFC from Rawalpindi to Pakistan-China border, Khunjerab backed up by a high capacity microwave link.
The planning of project started including survey along the deployment corridor and interaction with concerned government departments for necessary coordination for project execution along planned route. After completion of survey and tendering process, a contract was signed between SCO and a Chinese company, during the visit of PM of Pakistan to China on 5 July 2013 in a ceremony held in Peoples Great Hall, Beijing.
On completion of all other pre-implementation formalities, Soft Launching of the project was performed by the Chinese President during his visit to Pakistan on 20 April 2015 at PM’s Secretariat, Islamabad. The project was finally kicked off after the Ground Breaking performed by the PM of Pakistan at SCO Complex, Gilgit on 19 May 2016.
Thereafter, the work started in one of the most difficult terrains for a unique project in the history of both the countries. The meticulous planning, careful execution with dedicated team work and close supervision, paved the way for successful implementation of the project along one of the highest mountain ranges of the world. Notwithstanding the hardships of terrain and challenging environments of the area characterized by extreme weather conditions, landslides, natural hazards, logistics issues and limited weather windows in weather sensitive sections, work was executed with utmost care to meet international standards.
Through necessary provisions of Govt rules it was ensured that local labour and material is used for the project and only that equipment is procured from abroad which is not indigenously manufactured. With this step approximately 1400 individuals especially from Gilgit-Baltistan and adjacent remote areas remained employed during execution period of the project while local industry was flourished on provision of required material for the project.
The project has been completed with development of communication infrastructure of underground OFC from Rawalpindi to Khunjerab, and Aerial OFC from Karimabad to Khunjerab. To supplement OFC in landslide prone areas, high capacity Microwave links as backup were established along with construction of Node Centres at 9 different locations along Rawalpindi-Khunjerab axis. In view of peculiarities of area, a specialized shelter based nodal site was developed at Khunjerab to house the equipment with temperature-controlled environment where no electricity or administrative support was available.
The communication linkage has been established with Chinese side at the border. The project was officially inaugurated by the Prime Minister on 13th July 2018 and the first live call to SCO’s Office in Khunjerab was made during the event.
To complete end-to-end connectivity from China to international destinations (Middle East, Africa and Europe), SCO has signed Interconnect Agreement with PTCL and link has been successfully tested for end-to-end connectivity.
SCO executing the only ICT project in CPEC is involved in CPEC activities right from its conceptualization as focal organization of MoIT&T and Planning Commission of Pakistan. Realizing the futuristic ICT requirements of trade corridor, a detailed plan “IT & Telecom Vision – CPEC” to depict futuristic telcomm requirements of intense activity prone trade corridor and to complement Trade Corridor into Digital Corridor has been prepared. Phase wise implementation of IT Vision is considered imperative as no other ICT project has so far been planned in CPEC.
The various factors likely to be addressed through Phase-II of the project include.
Following are salient of Phase-II of the project:
The project with its strategic significance provides direct cross-border connectivity between the two neighbouring nations already connected through the fiber of mutual trust and friendship over centuries thereby further strengthening the friendship bondage. The project would reduce dependence of Pakistan on submarine cables thereby addressing vulnerabilities of its international connectivity. It also provides China with alternate and shorter access for its transit telcomm traffic to Europe, Middle East and Africa. Due to its inherent potentials, it has a key role in support of other projects being undertaken under the economic corridor by meeting their ICT requirements. The project will help improve the telcomm and ICT industry of Pakistan, promote tourism and create trading opportunities for northern areas of the country. It will also provide the ICT infrastructure for 3G/4G services in the areas and enhance communication security with an alternative fiber route. The project with such broad strategic, socio-economical and technological dimensions is expected to be a Game Changer by complementing Trade Corridor with a Digital Corridor.
Today, SCO has embarked upon another milestone achievement in its glorious history of about 43 years when Pak-China OFC link has been made operational for carrying commercial traffic from China to international destinations. The commercial traffic on the recently commissioned link is being carried from Urumqi (China) to Frankfurt (Germany) by SCO-PTCL consortium.
Pak-China OFC link is the first ever cross-border connectivity established between the two neighboring countries. This is also for the very first time in the “History of country” when well organized, high capacity cross-border terrestrial connectivity has been established by a public sector organization.
The vital communication link, besides its strategic and socio-economic dimensions has the potential to carry high volumes of traffic from China to international destinations in Middle East, Africa and Europe for which traffic projections are very healthy.
Despite challenges, all members of SCO worked untiringly for timely completion of and only ICT project so far planned under the ambit of CPEC. The successful completion and commissioning of flagship Early Harvest ICT CPEC Project is testimonial of organizational strength, and professional acumen of SCO for which all members of the organization deserve appreciation.