updated 3/3/2005 8:41:33 PM ET 2005-03-04T01:41:33

Cell phones aren't ringing these days in this Himalayan nation: Small businessmen can't take orders, children can't phone their parents and political activists can't call around to organize a decent-sized protest.

For the past month, since King Gyanendra seized power and ordered communications links switched off, Nepalese have been learning to live without their cell phones.

It's been a difficult lesson.

About a third of Nepal's telephone lines are cellular, and while landline phones and Internet links were restored a week after the king's surprise announcement, there's no sign that cell phones — the communications method of choice for government opponents — will be working anytime soon.

"I have not had any business since the mobile phones were shut down," said Krishna Maharjan, who had to sell the tanker truck he once used to deliver water to homes in Katmandu. "I don't know how long this will last and I just cannot go on like this."

Maharjan needed his cell phone to take orders, since he was always driving around Katmandu, where many homes have serious water shortages. New customers would also call him — using the number he had painted on his blue tanker.

At a time when he should have been preparing for the dry summer months ahead, his busiest time of year, he had to sell his tanker, close his business and begin looking for another job.

Others are suffering, too. Nepal has about 246,000 cell phone subscribers, a number that has grown dramatically in the five years they've been available here. For most Nepalese, there's no alternative: Getting a landline phone can mean a five-year wait.

Last year, Nepal Telcom, a government-owned company with a cell phone monopoly, announced 50,000 new lines. But more than 150,000 people lined up outside company officers nationwide. In some cities, police beat back applicants with batons.

Gyanendra, a constitutional monarch, seized power Feb. 1, imposed emergency rule and suspended civil liberties. He said he had to act because of the Maoist insurgency that has taken over much of the mountainous countryside. He has ignored repeated calls from the international community to restore democracy.

Government officials say the phones were shut down to prevent opposition supporters from organizing protest rallies — now illegal under the state of emergency. With cell phones, it was easier for activists to coordinate with each other and communicate their moves far from the police, who sweep down to disrupt protests.

But the shutdown had hurt plenty of regular Nepalese.

Many stores selling cell phones and accessories have been forced to close, and the remaining stores are unsure how long they can remain open. Half the 150 cell phone stores in Katmandu are believed to have shut down.

"I am unable to pay my rent and loans. In this uncertain situation the only choice was to find a new profession," said Suraj Agrawal, who owned a cell phone store in New Road, the main market in Katmandu.

Officials at Nepal Telecom, which is losing $70,000 daily in revenue, do not know when they'll be allowed to resume service.

Nepal Telecom chief Sugat Kansakar said that even when service does start, it would be in phases, with subscribers having to reregister.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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