By Naveed Siraj

IN THE last decade, despite IT investments in the government and enterprise segments, majority of consumers in Pakistan remains deprived of affordable computers and internet access. Pakistan has one of the lowest PC and broadband penetration rates in the world.

Taking into account what we pay for computing and connectivity over a 3-year period of usage, recurring cost of broadband (i.e. the monthly service charges for broadband) is more than 60 per cent. Our ownership cost as percentage of disposal income is one of the highest in the region.

It should not come as a surprise that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has ranked Pakistan at an abysmal 127th position among 155 countries in its global ICT Development Index report released in October 2012. Just to add, Pakistan went down by 2 points in ranking in 2012 where Pakistan is faltering in most computing and connectivity indicators. Red-tape and chronic lack of urgency continue to dent the countrys economic prospects. The world transitions to 4G and we are struggling with the 3G auction process.

Technology is allowing communities around the world to break from cycles of poverty by building skills needed to succeed in 21st century knowledge-based economy. IT-enabled learning tools are being integrated in classrooms to improve literacy and standards of education. IT-supported solutions are enhancing capability of healthcare workers to efficiently deliver primary care. Pervasive broadband is connecting communities and allowing citizens to participate in the democratic discourse.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN agency, cites broadband as a key growth priority to enable positive economic and social change. World Bank studies indicate that 10 percentage point increase in high-speed internet connections boosts annual GDP growth by 1.38 percentage point. As our broadband installed base is less than 2 per cent, a focused approach towards investment in high-performance broadband access will dramatically transform the economy.

For Pakistan to compete and succeed globally, government must set clear ICT goals in a coherent National IT and Broadband policy. Following must remain our top priority goals: We must commit to:

Increase PC and broadband penetration three times by 2015:

Neighbouring countries have lowered tariff on PCs and have seen double-digit growth in IT adoption. Pakistan is one of the countries that have highest GST on Computers. Reducing GST will not only increase affordability of IT products but as computing usage increases, it will help government collect higher revenue as more citizens get connected with services delivered by the government. Allowing schools to avail tax-free purchase of PCs at the sales stage rather than import stage will transform the education landscape.

Universal access to computing and broadband:

Pakistan has made a significant start with Universal Service Fund to build communication infrastructure in our underserved communities. This program needs to aggressively accelerate growth of IT infrastructure in our rural communities through closer public private partnership. An IT industry representative on the USF board can add private sector voice to the program allowing for greater collaboration towards nation building.

One digitally literate person in every home:

Technology reaching the masses through government supported rural digital inclusion programs will positively impact rural income with access to weather forecasts, farming techniques, farm produce and market information. This will augment investments in rural services.

Promoting Broadband in rural Pakistan:

We must encourage broadband service providers to explore new products such as volume-capped pre-paid broadband doing away with time-cap to make broadband more affordable.

In the mid-90s, our cellular penetration remained low as consumers only had an option of post-paid services. The cellphones remained limited to business use. When volume-based pre-paid cellular services were made commercially available, there was a massive increase in usage and investment in the telco infrastructure. Today, we stand at 65%+ cellular penetration. Therefore, we strongly believe that broadband adoption will rise from a paltry 1% if services providers cater to consumer affordability levels with innovative new pre-paid services.

Awareness programs targeting women empowerment:

Technology can provide avenues to women for generating income within the comfort of their homes. We must create awareness of web-based sales, linking them to monetized social-media. We must open a world of new opportunities for women empowering them with required knowledge and skills.

The key to success of the proposed National IT and Broadband policy is an inclusive approach where academia, the private sector and government collaborate towards a common goal of nation building. Achievement of higher levels of digital literacy will stem a further downward slide on ICT indicators while accelerating build-up of information highway to boost our national competitiveness.

The writer is Country Manager of Intel Pakistan. He is working in Pakistans IT industry with an experience of over 20 years.

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