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Connecting the Unconnected

By Jawad Ali

A spotlight on Pakistan’s telecom sector in the backdrop of smart cities.

With a teledensity of 71 percent, 133 million mobile subscribers and 31.8 million mobile broadband (MBB) subscribers, Pakistan ranks sixth in the top ten smartphone markets for growth potential. This evolving communication landscape holds unlimited opportunities, including key ingredients for building smart cities.

Dr. Syed Ismail Shah is the chairman of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA). With an extensive experience in technology implementation, telecommunication policy making and regulation, he also holds the additional charge of CEO for the National ICT R&D Fund Company since January 2016.

MIT Technology Review Pakistan’s chief correspondent Jawad Ali spoke to Shah on ways in which telecommunication technologies can help smart urban governance.

What is the importance of the Internet of Things (IoT) for smart cities initiatives? Can we build smart cities in Pakistan in the near future?
The IoT can transform cities by refining infrastructure, creating more efficient and cost effective municipal services, reducing traffic congestion, enhancing public transportation and keeping citizens safe and more engaged in the community.

With the rapid advancement in technology, we are heading towards an era where use of IoT solutions will soon become a necessity to facilitate citizens.

Several companies are providing IoT solutions, especially in telecom sector. Can you share with us some statistics related to connected devices or a list of IoT related services?
As of 2016, Pakistan has a teledensity of 71 percent. There are 133 million mobile subscribers and 31.8 million mobile broadband (MBB) subscribers. As per GfK forecast rankings, Pakistan is at number six in the top ten smartphone markets in terms of growth.

In the last six months, the PTA has processed over 600 applications for terminal equipment, resulting in import of more than 11 million connected devices. IoT related services are still in their infancy globally as well as in Pakistan, but areas like tracking-based services, wearables, smart homes and smart cities, e-agriculture and smart metering have shown a visible surge.

How do IoT solutions benefit companies and the economy?
Thanks to technology, we hear terms like connected people, connected societies, and connected devices. It is projected that billions of smart devices will be connected and IoT-related jobs created in the coming years, hopefully triggering a spike in economic growth.

Mobile operators in Pakistan are rethinking their business models. They have started to work along the lines of internet companies, developing platforms that enable Over-the-Top (OTT) based services and branching out into the digital financial services, enabling them to successfully ride the next big wave, i.e. the IoT.

Economic benefits of IoT solutions include optimization of services that can result in cost saving, e.g. smart metering. These will also create value addition and improvements in productivity and automation.

Local language content remains a major hurdle in broadband penetration in Pakistan. What efforts are being made by PTA or other government agencies in this regard?
Urdu is our national language. We have four provincial languages (Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, and Balochi) and many sub-regional languages. While the significance of ICT for development is undisputed, lack of local content is a limitation. Mostly external content is being pushed towards local communities but that may not have the same impact as local content.

In order to enable greater access to the ICT, there is a need for an emphasis on content development at the local level. The government, regulatory bodies and private sector have shown an extreme urgency to address the importance of local content development within the ICT. The Government of Pakistan’s Telecom Policy 2015 delivery principles include accelerated digitization through local manufacturing and content development as a primary driver. The PTA recently arranged a ‘Pakistan Mobile App Award 2016’ to highlight the importance of development of mobile applications. The participants were local developers showing interest in development of applications that may be relevant to local communities.

Mobile operators have started to work along the lines of becoming internet companies i.e., developing platforms that enable Over-the-Top (OTT) based services and branching out into digital financial services etc., so they can successfully ride the next big wave, IoT.

Read more: The Power of Connectivity

The PTA has always encouraged new ideas and supported initiatives for the betterment of telecom sector. Initiatives like setting up of IXP, local app development, and telecenters are being explored to improve internet access.

Universal Service Fund (USF) recently signed contracts worth PKR 3.72 billion with Ufone for provision of mobile broadband internet/3G services in far-flung areas of Khuzdar and Chagai, Balochistan. PHOTOS COURTESY: UNIVERSAL SERVICE FUND

What would be your advice to the Internet users, especially the youth in Pakistan?
Despite a late start, Pakistan is now among the top 20 countries in terms of number of Internet users.  However, the Internet is still new for many people and they are not aware of its proper usage as well. I think Internet has many positive sides but usually the negative sides get highlighted more in our country and people think of it as a waste of time.

All of us need to use the Internet for positive activities such as learning, business development and for sharing ideas.  The youth should use it properly and not spend too much time on it for entertainment only. Today, we have been seeing a big surge in Pakistani startups coming up with great many ideas. That is very positive and encouraging.

The government is collecting 1.5 percent of telecom revenues under the Universal Service Fund (USF) for promotion of telecom services in underserved areas of Pakistan. What schemes are currently underway and how is this initiative benefiting society?
The licensing regime of the PTA includes a mandatory roll-out obligation plan to ensure deployment of networks and services in an optimal way at a nationwide level. It is the government’s priority to ensure areas that may not qualify for coverage purely on commercial or business basis are not neglected. The 1.5 percent of revenues collected from telecom companies under the USF is used for provision of Telecom/IT services in underserved areas.

Over the years, the government has successfully completed several strategic projects. Following are a few projects implemented in recent years: 

Rural Telecom Programs for establishment of 2G, 3G, 4G networks
The core objective of this initiative is to provide basic telephony and data services to population in unserved areas. A total of 4,297 blocks (mauzas) have been successfully covered under this program.

Telecenters
Telecenters established by the PTA offer state of the art computer equipment and broadband facility. Several e-services are hosted on the infrastructure to facilitate people living in far-flung, unserved or underserved areas. The telecenters are shared sites that provide public access to information and communication technologies. Visitors can use computers to access internet.

Read more: Changing the Way You Ride

Enabling Special Persons (ICT services with help of the PFFB and Al-shifa Eye Trust, pilot project)
The USF has signed a special agreement with Al-Shifa Eye Trust to “enable persons with disabilities to use telecom services”. They will work together to increase accessibility of IT and telecom services to people with low vision through provision of modern computerized low vision equipment.

IT labs for girls to provide technology training
As many as 50 ICT labs have been established for girls across the country under the Women Empowerment Centers run by Pakistan Bait-ul-Mal. The initiative aims to create awareness, training, offer ICT courses and coding as well as app development to girls.

Details of other programs can be checked at: www.usf.org.pk

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