3G spectrum in Pakistan

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AS A concerned citizen of Pakistan, I would like to urge all those who have anything to do with the ICT sector to do whatever they can, to push and expedite the introduction of mobile broadband (3G technology). I say this because the spectrum auction has been delayed again, albeit for good reasons.
Irrespective of the ongoing, unnecessary “controversy” surrounding the auction of 3G in Pakistan, allotting 3G frequencies to telecom operators is extremely urgent and essential for Pakistan.
We have already been left behind by countries who used to be our followers in 2G technology.
Mobile broadband – or 3G – should have been introduced in Pakistan four years ago.
The delay has made us lose huge opportunities relating to job creation, international trade, economic growth and Foreign Direct Investment (telecom FDI 2007: $1,824 million and 2011: $79 million).
Alarmingly, the technology gap between the advanced countries and Pakistan has widened even more, despite the fact that more than 70 per cent of our population is below 35 – normally considered early adopters of modern technology.
According to ITU’s ICT indicators, more than 160 economies world-wide have launched 3G services commercially and the list includes Afghanistan and Somalia! Countries from New Zealand to USA are allocating huge amounts of national resources to deploy infrastructure, like Optic Fiber Cables, to facilitate delivery of broadband to the citizens.
Whereas we are taking ages even to allocate the resource of frequency-spectrum which will facilitate the provision of broadband. Some sceptics question the benefits of 3G for Pakistan.
Mostly, they are only thinking in terms of mobile phones – and not broadband.
Although a lot could be done with 3G smart phones, which are estimated to be around 15 million in Pakistan and expected to increase to 50 million by 2016.
It is the 3G mobile broadband – mainly using USB dongles, complementing fixed broadband – that is of higher value and main attraction for a country like ours.
While people in developed countries usually use mobile broadband in addition to the fixed broadband, mobile broadband is often the only access method available to people in developing countries.
In a country of over 180 million people, there may be 5 million fixed lines, and not all of them are usable.
Broadband has tremendous commercial applications but one of its main benefits lies in its capability as a deliverer of basic services to hundreds of millions of citizens, especially those living in the hinterlands of the country.
Education, health, governance, commerce, agriculture, women empowerment, all can find their way.
Greater access to broadband services has been found to help accelerate achievement of development targets like the universally-accepted Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
It is only by using broadband that we can serve our exploding population (having a CAGR of 2.5 per cent) at their doorsteps.
Not only through providing them with jobs, social services and prosperity, but also by addressing mass migration to urban centres and saving our bursting mega-cities from crumbling under their own weight.
Currently, broadband is available in less than 300, small and big towns and cities in Pakistan.
All the present broadband subscriptions belong to the fixed broadband category. But then there is only so much fixed technologies can do due to their lack of mass deployment.
Fortunately, thanks to the ubiquitous 2G GSM network, 3G can take broadband to every nook and corner of the country, becoming accessible to more than 90 per cent of the population, with relatively small effort.
I have deliberately used the word “effort” and not investment because investment will come from the private sector telecom operators.
Here is a sector where the government doesn’t need to bother about development budget allocations and resource constraints.
Just as 2G was such an effective engine of growth for our economy, so 3G, too, could contribute significantly.
Admittedly the private sector operators would like to invest and deploy 3G mainly in large cities, but for the rest there is a USF (Universal Service Fund)!
As has been announced, and hopefully it is not going to be changed, the licences are going to be technology-neutral. Therefore, it is the telecom operators who would decide whether they deploy 3G or 4G or something else.
Incidentally, the ITU-defined 4G – the so-called ‘LTE Advanced’ – is not even there yet. And even if it was, the prices of 4G terminal devices, primarily dongles, would be substantially higher than the prices of 3G devices. This is simply due to the large number of 3G devices being produced, as there are more than a billion 3G subscriptions against a few million of 4G. This makes 4G far less affordable for the majority of our population.
Having said that the operators should still be free to make their own judgments based on commercial considerations. As for the controversy, firstly, on a per-megahertz-per-year basis, the announced base price is equal to the peak price achieved last time around.
Secondly it is likely to go higher during the upcoming open bidding, despite a worse political, economic and security situation than in 2004.
Yes, the only thing that all of us need to be vigilant about and jealously guard is the process being followed. The process must be fair and transparent.
The writer is former founding CEO of Universal Service Fund. Prior to USF, he was country head of Siemens Telecom in Pakistan. He has been on sabbaticals to Carnegie Melon University USA and Oxford University, UK. He can be reached at piftikhar@hotmail.com


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