|Issue:||Asia-Pacific I 2006|
|Topic:||Technology and development in Pakistan|
|Author:||Muhammad Javed Malik|
|Organisation:||National Radio Telecommunication Corporation (NRTC)|
Muhammad Javed Malik is the General Manager National Radio Telecommunication Corporation in Pakistan (NRTC). There, his chief concern has been to enhance the company’s production facilities and significantly increase production. His special emphasis is on research and development. The greatest part of Brigadier Malik’s career has been in the military service of his country. He studied at the command and staff course at the Command and Staff College of Quetta and held a variety of increasingly responsible command and staff appointments. Brigadier Malik also served as an instructor at the Military College of Signals. He earned his degree in Telecommunications Engineering from the University of Engineering & Technology, Lahore.
Pakistan’s telecommunications systems are at a crossroads. Good progress has been made liberalising the sector and its growth has increased substantially in recent years, but the available Internet and broadband-based social services are still far from meeting the country’s needs. Incumbent operators are facing real pressure from services based upon modern technology and revenues are slipping. The government, and the PTA, its regulatory agency, are pushing ahead with plans to make Pakistan a communications hub for the region.
Technology of one sort or another was even used during the Stone Age. Some of the oldest methods of keeping water cool in the desert are still more efficient than modern systems. Much is said nowadays about digital communications, but centuries ago, Native Americans, the American Indians, used to communicate with long and short beats of a drum. It was an early form of digital communication, as amazing, perhaps, as the mysteries of the pyramids. The telecommunications industry experienced an incredible revolution in the last century. The worldwide growth of the mobile communication network, coupled with the liberalisation of trade promoted by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements have created an encouraging competitive atmosphere that has greatly reduced the dominance, the effective monopoly, of authority of public sector fixed telecommunications operators. These developments, together with the technological convergence made possible by digital technology, is resulting in the emergence of a single market for telecom services, where each provider offers his own versions of virtually all types of communications services. Nobody can deny the advances in the field of telecommunications technology that has virtually made the world a global village. Challenges Recently, the finances of many traditional operating companies have been in the red due to competition from service providers offering voice over IP (VoIP), data and next generation networks (NGN). Traditional telecommunications systems and services are being replaced by the arrival of new technologies and, as a result, the finances of Pakistan’s operators are in danger. To the extent that international calls are made using VoIP, international settlements of long-distance telephone charges can have a negative impact upon the country’s finances. Regulatory authorities, it seems, currently have little control over the Internet, data networks and VoIP. Traditional communications systems, however, tend to be better controlled and coordinated. Pakistan has the resources and positioning to become the central hub for telecommunications in the Asia-Pacific region. The country, though, needs to develop its infrastructure and internal capacity and realise this goal. The implementation of manpower and capacity building programmes and the creation of a competitive environment to attract investment in ICT and broadband are among the most important of the steps now being taken. Programmes to encourage the growth of broadband and ICT infrastructure and usage, as well as steps to ensure the security and reliability of Pakistan ICT and broadband infrastructure are, likewise, indispensable. Pakistan’s insertion into the global market, will also call for the strengthening of its commercial relations with operators throughout the world and the development of international ties and agreements. ICT and education The Information Society and the Global Economy are based upon the swift access to information of the sort that the Internet provides. However, access to quality education is essential; information alone is not sufficient to partake fully in the knowledge-based economy. Pakistan must still deal with major challenges to participate fully in the knowledge-based economy, given its level of illiteracy, overpopulation, and the lack of adequate educational opportunities to serve the entire population. In this regard, educational institutions play a vital role expanding the use of ICT and broadband. There are plans to make available low cost or free access to PC labs and broadband services, including the Internet, at all public and private schools. Plans to interconnect public access points through the Internet for training programmes and services are also under consideration. Investment and the PTA The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) is the country’s regulatory agency. It played a vital role devising Pakistan’s deregulation policy. The Pakistan Telecommunications Company Limited (PTCL), in 2004, allowed local loop (LL) access in accordance with the PTA’s broadband policy guidelines. There are now over 26,000 DSL (digital subscriber line) users in the country. In 2004, many licenses were awarded for LL, WLL (wireless local loop) and LDI (long distance and international calling). Private cable operators do not provide broadband service in addition to their normal programming. This is an unfortunate fact in Pakistan. Cable operators are subject to relatively few regulatory requirements, which regulate the cable TV services they provide. These regulations, though, did not consider broadband services at the time they were developed. Now, the PTA has introduced its VAS (value added service) licence, which permits cable operators to provide broadband on CATV. Development programmes Pakistan is investigating and developing programmes to use broadband for a variety of different purposes. Broadband contributions to Pakistan’s economic growth include value added services, e-government, e-business, e-banking, tele-medicine, distance learning and the like. Pakistan’s broadband policy is aimed at developing the country’s social and economic wellbeing, keeping in mind its specific society and cultural requirements. The National Database & Registration Authority (NADRA) introduced utility bill payments using a variety of Intranets, an approach quite different from that followed by other countries in the region. However, since these payments overburden the banks and create long queues, harried bill payers consider even this simple facility somewhat miraculous. Government of Pakistan’s e-government project is the responsibility of the Electronic Government Directorate. The directorate is now analysing the needs of each of the ministries and departments. The e-government project currently provides only limited services. The government expects to expand these services to provide online public access to each of the government’s departments. This will give citizens online access to file government forms, pay taxes, obtain health information and services and partake in a variety of training and educational courses. A virtual university has been setup. It is a step forward in the field of Internet distance learning using broadband. The project is unique for this region. To earn the consumer’s confidence and to widen the scope and usage of telecom services, the information networks must be secure. Pakistan must develop a legal and commercial framework for its e-applications. Although there are many local issues that must be dealt with locally, information security and consumer confidence are global issues that call for cooperation between countries and must be treated within an international context. Pakistan’s telecom sector The use of GSM is increasing rapidly in Pakistan; there were 19 million users in October 2005, up from 5.5 million in June 2000. Mobile phone penetration is 11.9 per cent, and the number of users increased at the rate of 1.4 million users per month between June and October of 2005. Overall tele-density reached 15.6 per cent in October 2005, an impressive increase from only 4.31 per cent in June 2003. Pakistan’s telecom sector generated Rs.171 billion (US$ 2.86 billion) in the 2004-05 fiscal year. The sector contributed 1.9 per cent to the country’s total GDP. During 2004-05, mobile operators earned total profits of Rs.58 billion (US$ 966.8 million) equivalent to 40 per cent of the total generated by the telecom sector. Government General Sales Taxes and Central Excise Duties (GST/CED) on telecom operations came to Rs.20 billion (US$334 million). Foreign direct investment (FDI), stimulated by the liberalisation of the sector, came to US$494.4, or 32 per cent of the total investments made in Pakistan during the year. Wireless broadband solutions are essential to the development of Pakistan’s underdeveloped rural regions. In these areas, the existing infrastructure is mostly in poor condition and coverage is limited. The PTA hopes to implement Wi-Max on a wide scale in these regions; it has auctioned licenses for the 3.5GHz band to encourage operators to include Wi-Max coverage in their plans.