Friday September 24, 2021

Delaying Digital Pakistan

August 02, 2021

Pakistan’s mobile and internet users came one step closer to attaining new services and better speed last week as the federal cabinet finally approved a policy to auction spectrum for mobile and internet companies. However, it will still take months for results to trickle down to devices owing to the long laid-out procedures. Why, despite the PM’s personal ownership of the ‘Digital Pakistan’ initiative and the greater need for digitalisation following the coronavirus pandemic, the government is still progressing at a snail’s pace is beyond reason. The cabinet’s decision has also been hailed a ‘landmark’ one as it will see a spectrum auction carried out for the first time for Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan – areas hitherto suffering from little to no data connectivity as ‘security issues’ kept private companies at bay.

All this and more should have been undertaken last year when the pandemic-induced lockdowns forced people indoors, driving classrooms, healthcare, shopping, and much more into our homes. While the induction of AJK and GB in the spectrum auction is a much-welcome development, students from both these remote regions, along with those from Balochistan and ex-Fata, have been protesting the lack of data and mobile connectivity in their hometowns for years now. All over the world, as the pandemic hit and changed the way we live, countries quickly adapted to the ‘new normal’ – which included auctioning unallocated spectrum for emergency use and extending telecom licences so that the tectonic shift into a digital economy and society could take place smoothly. Yet, here we are, 16 months from the first reported case of Covid-19, and a spectrum auction has still not taken place. While there may be some justification in telecommunication companies’ claims that spectrums should be fairly priced, if not entirely free as is the case in several countries that favour people’s connectivity over profits, the sad reality is that any government here will seek to maximise earning foreign exchange whenever the opportunity presents itself. However, the end user – the people of Pakistan – must not be made to suffer with high charges, poor service, and lack of access. Many industry insiders and government officials blame bureaucratic red tape for the delay, along with the lingering fear of NAB in case the auction is conducted on a fast-track basis and spectrum sold at a lower price. Whatever the case may be, the hard fact is that the government’s efforts towards digitalisation have been excruciatingly slow. The surprise ‘resignation’ of Tania Aidrus last year, who was spearheading the country’s digital turnaround, six months into her new position did not help either.

Since the PM launched the Digital Pakistan Vision in late 2019 and promised to transform governance as well as key socioeconomic sectors, the country has seen unprecedented progress in terms of going digital, with e-commerce, mobile banking, and internet usage breaking records. According to the PTA, there are 184 million cellular subscribers in the country, with 100 million of them having access to 3G/4G internet services. Similarly, there are 103 million broadband internet subscribers. However, for a country of over 220 million people with the majority comprising youth, these numbers do not do justice. Going forward, the government needs to take urgent measures to ensure gender parity as far as access to internet and mobile phones is concerned, since Pakistan suffers from one of the highest digital gender gaps. Similarly, it must be realised that the repeated blanket bans of popular social media sites do more harm than good to our reputation as a digital-friendly country and only scare away international investors. There must also be a rethink of regressive levies such as the recent tax on mobile calls lasting over five minutes, along with the high import duties on smartphones, since these measures only slow down the drive towards a Digital Pakistan.