3G/4G: strategy and impact
In the absence of a well-thought out strategy, society will not benefit fully from the 3G/4G mobile technology rollout. Access to cost-efficient electronic communication is a citizen’s right and such access must have the attributes of a public good. It is akin to free access to school education, clean drinking water and uncontaminated air for breathing.
So is 3G/4G based internet access on a mobile phone or a tablet for the benefit of society or should it be treated as a treasure that can be auctioned off as a one-time windfall for the government? A broader strategy would transform the lives of ordinary Pakistanis in significant ways, creating tens of billions of dollars of measurable and quantifiable value to society.
The current model of extracting maximum possible windfall for the government without keeping the big picture in mind has many negative consequences. The telcos would like to recoup their investment in the short-to-medium run so access to 3G/4G services will be priced higher, metered and marketed to the privileged of society.
The PTA itself has in fact conceded this by watering down the mandate to provide 3G/4G access to the rural areas of Pakistan. Its publicly available documents stipulate that in six years (72 months) the operator will provide coverage to 50 percent of all tehsil headquarters (minimum 20 tehsil headquarters in each province)!
Isn’t that aiming too low? Tehsil headquarters are usually small towns and six years after the introduction of 3G/4G services only 50 percent of them will have access to fast mobile internet let alone an average rural village tens of miles away from a tehsil headquarter. Since the government wants to maximise what it can get from the 3G/4G auction, it cannot mandate telcos to serve less lucrative market segments – hence, the watered down mandate.
Lessons need to be learnt from the rollout of a previously similar technology 2.5G also called GPRS offered by all telcos on mobile handsets in Pakistan. While 2.5G has been widely available in cities albeit with poor network performance, its access to rural areas has been sparse at best. One can go five kilometres away from the Motorway and lose the ability to download email yet alone browse a content-rich website.
Furthermore, locally relevant content in local languages is scarce, making the internet irrelevant to more than 70 percent population that lives in villages and many in the cities who do not understand English. The promise and potential of efficient and fast access to communication, specifically the internet, coupled with locally relevant local language based education, business and entertainment content can have an enormous positive impact on Pakistani society.
Almost half of all school going age children in Pakistan are out of school. New e-learning models, including MOOCs and others, offer a great promise to solve this national crisis. E-learning includes e-books and e-content, learning management systems, games and simulations, assessment and test prep tools and collaboration and distance tutoring tools.
Entities like Sabaq.pk, Punjab e-Learn and Jugnu TV among others have been working on providing e-learning content tailored for Pakistani children. However, a lot more needs to be done. Like the rest of the world, e-learning delivery models need to be developed and experimented with.
It can be argued that the cost of not providing 3G/4G services to the citizens of Pakistan far exceeds tens of billions of dollars in lost value. Delaying the 3G/4G auction further because it cannot fetch enough for government would not be prudent. Furthermore, the Ministry of Information Technology should come up with a comprehensive strategy incentivising local content development that will be consumed on 3G/4G networks.
Content providers need to be encouraged to start building local language based content and apps for education, e-learning, business and entertainment. E-commerce alone could add a few percentage points to GDP but would necessitate availability of cost effective mobile e-payment solutions. This is not possible without the close cooperation of the State Bank of Pakistan, the ministries of finance and information technology and the private sector. The finance minister should lead this effort and promise to make it happen within six months of the 3G/4G launch.
The ICT Research and Development Fund, which has vast un-deployed funds amounting to billions of rupees can start programmes and initiatives to foster local language based content development. The 3G/4G auction could have been structured so that it balances the need of the government to generate one time revenue, let telcos make a decent profit yet make fast, quick, efficient, reliable internet and relevant content available to the masses.
Where gaps need to be filled, the Universal Service Fund, mandated to provide communication technologies to underserved areas of Pakistan, should find innovative ways to provide fast affordable mobile internet access in these areas. This integrated approach requires leadership, vision and a coherent long-term strategy which tries to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
Is this too much to ask of the government? A key role of government is to regulate the markets and alleviate temporary market failures. In case of local language based locally relevant content, business models are based on the economies of scale of a large customer base. Most of the content is consumed freely but a fraction of value-added content is monetised providing the necessary financial incentive for the content builder to produce more content.
The private sector left to its own devices will eventually make it happen but the road will be long and it may even take a decade or more for the market to attain critical mass. ICT Research and Development Fund working closely with USF and private stakeholders can help reach this critical mass within a few years. If such a strategy had been adopted in the past for wired internet, it would have made a case for fetching higher price for the 3G/4G auction. It is not too late to salvage the 3G/4G roll out and pursue a coherent and integrated vision and strategy.
The ideas discussed in this article were shared and debated during Disrupt ED, a conference organised by Alif Ailaan, an advocacy campaign to get every Pakistani child into school, keep them learning and ensure they receive quality education.
The writer works at the intersection of business, technology and society. He builds software products and is the founder of educational content-maker Jugnoo Media.