The future of ICT in Pakistan

THE ELECTIONS are finally over and Pakistan has voted. There has been one outright winner for me, and those are the people of Pakistan. Powered through telecoms, people have had their voices heard and seen throughout Pakistan. Over 50 million voters verified their polling stations through their mobile phones. They captured all they saw and shared them instantaneously on social media, where political parties were rallying for support by engaging people who had never voted in their life, to leave the comfort of their homes and to go out and vote. These kinds of peer pressures were unprecedented and have resulted in one of the largest turnouts in the electoral history of the country. This is a major victory for the country and its telecom companies.

All of this would not have been possible without telecom companies operating in Pakistan. About 90 per cent of Pakistans population now has access to mobile coverage. About 122 million of them use mobile phones and the price point is at a level where it is easily affordable by the common man. Pakistanis are also amongst the top SMS users in the country and it is estimated that on an average a Pakistani sends 178 SMSs in a month.

As seen in the West, data has become the primary medium for carrying communication. Many analysts in Pakistan fear that with data proliferation, people will move onto free applications such as Skype and Viber for use of voice and SMS, hence decreasing the revenues and hence the tax collection for the Government since the telecom sector is one of the highest sources of tax collection for the country. These fears are, however, unfounded. Chatting services such as MSN chat existed even when the mobile phone uptake was low. It still did not deter people from making calls to their loved ones. Also, what the detractors are not seeing is the benefits data services bring with them in terms of communication, commerce and education which can help in the much needed societal transformation of the country. These were seen as major electoral issues and the new government will surely step up their efforts to bring this change in the country.

ICT has witnessed a prolific boom in the last few years, thanks to large organizations such as the incumbent PTCL and Wateen Telecom, driving ample growth with ready access to comprehensive infrastructure through deployment of fiber optic network across the country. Over 250 towns and cities across the country are now connected through this extensive network. One of the most prolific success because of this enablement is the provisioning of Mobile Financial Services, which has seen transactions worth Rs.3.76 billion via online banking. The future of ICT, however, is determinant on sound policies for deregulation and consistency by the government in providing a new vision for foreign investors to bring new investment in the country.

At this stage, the government needs to keep in mind key factors for provisioning of spectrum to telecom operators for not only the roll-out for 3G, for which some companies have made investments in earnest, but the overall evolution for 4G/LTE networks in the future. Private sector is also hampered through a cohesive application of such policies at all levels, especially with regards to right of ways for installation of BTS, laying optic fiber networks, local loop cables etc, due to lack of standardization procedures amongst the civic bodies like CDA, LDA, Cantonments, DHA and others since they asks for exorbitant amounts to be paid for approvals of the same. There needs to be a proper policy or procedures to carry out such roll-outs in the interest of the operators and both the public and private sector would need to develop a policy framework in concurrence for resolving these.

The telecom sector has also been hampered, as the other sectors, due to the power crisis in the country. The Cellular Industry was declared as an “Industry” in 2004 by the Ministry of Industries and Production meaning by the Cellular Industry stands equally justified for the provision of Industrial Power Tariff as the other Industries in Pakistan are. The prevailing power crisis throughout the country is another very important factor affecting the smooth operations of the cellular operators not only in the rural/hard areas but in the urban areas as well. Thousands of cell sites have to remain functional (24×7 basis) in order to keep the network alive and maintain the quality of service as well.

The 3G has been a sore point in the last governments tenure. The auction of the 3G license was plagued by the protocols and regulatory requirements, hence the delay. We hope that the government has had its learning and the new one will smoothly handle this proposition.

In a report What Is the Impact of Mobile Telephony on Economic Growth? from a survey of 14 countries by GSMA/Deloitte using Cisco data, a 10 per cent rise from 2G to 3G penetration was found to increase GDP per capita growth by 0.15 percentage points and a doubling of mobile data use led to an increase of 0.5 percentage points in the GDP per capita growth rate, on average. These are encouraging signs for any country contemplating whether they want to move into the next phase of data evolution. The auction of the license itself will give an impetus to the economy and provide the government with FDI to conduct its business.

Smart Grids should be a top priority for the government since the electricity issue led to the downfall of the PPPP in these elections. Currently, the pilot projects are underway using cellular technology, however, the main issue under debate has been the selection of technology itself. As per industry leaders, cellular solutions for smart grids are not scalable. In addition to this, utilities require constant data streams on their networks for telemetry, oscillography, usage and meta-data. Data and its usage is rapidly increasing in Pakistan anda the telecom operators, on whom the electricity distribution companies are currently reliant upon, will be in a challenging position in the next few years as demand on their networks grows for ambient video. Three fundamental trends are gaining momentum with every new smartphone and netbook sold, with every app downloaded and with every sign-up to an “unlimited data plan”.

Broadband Everywhere: Consumers need constant wireless connectivity and will demand wireless broadband everywhere.

Prime Time to My Time: There is an increased expectation of mobile content, applications and preference to do things on ones own terms.

Video Explosion: Demand for video content will be extremely high, limiting the telecom networks capabilities to dedicate capacity for managing bandwidth.

In these scenarios and with the lack of a dedicated throughput available for data on telecom operators network, the utilities have no control over managing their networks. For instance, metering data may receive lower priority than emergency communications or, in most cases surveillance data. In shared best efforts-networks, utilities are unable to secure priority over the network customers – or even to have a guaranteed bandwidth – and end up competing for bandwidth with subscribers calling their friends and families. The utility companies also face a daunting challenge when the government bans cellular services due to security concern, affecting the utility companys network as well. WiMAX seems to be a viable alternative in this scenario. In Japan, UQ Communications is leading the WiMAX effort with Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and are piloting a smart grid project through the WiMAX Forum. If this is a successful implementation, the price of the chipset would drastically reduce and make the uptake of WiMAX more viable, also providing much needed support to the WiMAX industry for providing ubiquitous coverage, at least in the metros.

The government also intends to use approximately $700m available with the Universal Services Fund to further build on the infrastructure which has now been put into place. The USF has done extremely well under Pervez Iftikhar and now under Basit Riaz and will be a key player in bridging the urban-rural divide. The manifesto to “improve the working of the Universal Services Fund (USF) and utilize its resources to bridge rural-urban digital divide and establish Wi-Fi hotspots” is certainly a welcome one. E-Chaupal in India has been a resounding success in establishing rural markets and the USF would be reviewing these case studies and developing new centers in the rural market. This would be ideal opportunity for the government to build customer centric and scalable solutions that will develop the local economy and nurture local entrepreneurs. These steps would also require development of localized software and applications, which will help provide opportunities for the IT professionals in the country.

As for the industry itself, there are few major challenges ahead, especially with regards to human capital. Pakistan is ranked 92 out of 133 countries in university-industry linkages index, much lower than China and India. Due to the weak industry-university nexus in Pakistan, the youth is not able to acquire the skills sought by employers. Thus, the enterprises are not able to compete effectively in the global markets and the Government is unable to deliver services, efficiently. Due to the economic slowdown in the last couple of years, service-providers in Pakistan have taken several cost cutting measures including optimization of human resources, cut in employees perks and freezing employment. Recent floods had also damaged the existing infrastructure which forced the operators to divert their funds away from network expansion towards repair and maintenance.

However, all said and done, most of the above points toward a healthy growth in the economy in the days ahead, especially for the telecom market. The data revolution is well and truly on its way in Pakistan and the real winner will be its people.

The author has been working with leading cellular companies since the last 12 years. He is currently the Head of Marketing at Wateen Telecom.

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