Pakistan towards the Journey of Digital Revolution

The digital transformation of economies across the globe is accelerating with ever increasing pace. Disruptive technologies and emerging customer expectations are pushing the telecom industry for advanced solutions of high speed connectivity and access. A key aspect of Pakistan’s digital policy and PTA’s regulatory approach has been to ensure wide-spread broadband access across Pakistan.

By: Dr. Shahbaz Nasir

Pakistan started its journey towards high speed mobile broadband services in 2014 with the auction of spectrum by PTA for Next Generation Mobile Services and deployment of 3G/4G infrastructure in Pakistan. With the move to 3G/4G services in 2014, Pakistan entered into mobile broadband era. Though a bit late for 3G services, it was a wise move to introduce 4G services along with 3G. PTA further strengthened the uptake of 4G services with additional spectrum auctions of 1800 MHz and 850 MHz in the years 2016, 2017 and 2021. The benefits of simultaneously launching 3G and 4G – creating a competitive environment and continuous supply of required spectrum for advanced technologies – are evident in terms of achieving 116 million broadband mark in just eight years from the launch of mobile broadband in Pakistan. This is a remarkable achievement by any yardstick.

Today wide-spread competitive telecom services are available to the people of Pakistan. We have mobile coverage for over 89% of the population with 193 million biometrically verified SIMs / subscribers and more than 116 million broadband subscribers (52.6% BB penetration) compared to meagre 2 million subscriptions in 2012 before the launch of 3G/4G mobile services. Currently, 77% of Pakistan’s population is covered by 3G mobile signals and 75% by 4G signals, catering to the needs of majority of populace all over the country. With prudent policies and introduction of innovative services by telecom operators, the people of Pakistan are getting internet / broadband services at one of the most affordable prices in the region. It is pertinent to mention that mobile 1GB data prices further declined to only 0.58% of the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita which is well below the UN Broadband Commission’s recommendation of less than 2%. Moreover, as per Speedtest Global Index April 2022, Pakistan’s average mobile broadband download speed of 17.2 Mbps is also above the speed levels in other regional countries.

Widespread telecom infrastructure with over 50,632 telecom towers / sites and distribution network across Pakistan with over 220,000 retailers and franchises are not only serving the need of telecom services but also helping the spread of many other digital services for example: with active participation of mobile operators, their distribution network has enabled opening of 79 million mobile banking (m-Wallets) accounts and 587,547 m-wallet agents. Wide spread broadband services and digital payments have also enabled e-commerce upsurge in Pakistan. E-commerce market in FY20 is estimated to have expanded to Rs. 234.6 billion, up 55.5 percent on Year-on-Year (YoY) basis, according to State Bank of Pakistan’s (SBP) special section on ‘Covid-19 and the Need to Boost Digital Connectivity in Pakistan’ in its report. Using broadband services, the e-banking has seen remarkable increase i.e. quarterly mobile banking transactions (app-based / internet only) increased by 8 times from 11.9 million in 1Q2019 to 94 million in 4Q2021 and quarterly internet banking transactions almost quadrupled from 8.6 million in 1Q2019 to 33.8 million in 4Q2021. Similarly, the uptake of myriad digital solutions and services in the country were only made possible through broadband.

Despite widespread availability of broadband services, there is a gap vis-à-vis broadband adoption. PTA is, therefore, strategizing on enhancement of current infrastructure for the promotion of digital inclusion in the country. In 2021-2022, PTA had extensive engagements with the industry for the uplift of 4G/LTE services in Pakistan as well as AJ&K and GB: made available additional spectrum (1800 MHz and 2100 MHz bands); renewed existing spectrum assignments; refarmed spectrum assignments, facilitated Optic Fibre deployment and mitigated Right of Way issues, and enhanced Quality of Service and coverage obligations to ensure high quality 4G services to the people of Pakistan as well as AJ&K and GB. These measures along with the approval of Rolling Spectrum Strategy 2020-2023 will enable operators to manage their network planning and investments. This will ensure accessibility and availability of telecom services to meet the local demand for broadband.

Along with GoP’s policy for the availability of 5G services in the country, MoiT and PTA are also planning for spectrum auction for the enhanced proliferation of LTE, VoLTE and 5G services in near future. Successful 5G tests have already been carried out in the country. Large contiguous bandwidth availability will be worked out and rollout for 5G will be prioritized and facilitated.

For a healthy mobile device eco-system, the implementation of PTA’s Device Identification, Registration and Blocking System (DIRBS) in 2019 and Mobile Device Manufacturing Regulations, 2021 has also resulted in establishment of over 31 local assembly/manufacturing plants of affordable mobile devices in Pakistan. Over 64 million mobile devices have been locally assembled/manufactured in Pakistan since 2018 till date with 16 million 3G/4G smart phones.

With high broadband penetration, enabling regulations and majority of the population being under the age of 45 years, Pakistan has all the key ingredients to cater for the digital revolution. PTA is supporting and creating a favourable and enabling environment for innovation while strengthening consumer protection, data privacy and cyber security. Being acknowledged as the only 4th Generation Regulator in South Asia due to its collaborative and conducive regulatory environment, PTA should continue its resolve for enabling regulatory framework for the promotion of broadband and digital services in the country.