A slow, unsure walk to speed
While the government dithers over whether to offer 3G mobile-phone licences or 4G, and the five existing mobile-phone service providers are worried about licence fees and network costs, technological purists and consumer activists at least are clear: 4G is hands-down a better option than 3G for Pakistan.
“Pakistan missed the bus on 3G. More than a hundred countries have had it for years. Afghanistan has it, Iraq does, too, and it makes no sense to roll out a decade-old technology,” said Shakir Hussain, founder and CEO of Creative Chaos, a Karachi-based company that develops mobile software.
Most obviously, 4G – short for fourth generation mobile telecommunications technology – is fast. Incomparable in speed to the current, aged data-transfer networks in use in Pakistan, it is also significantly faster than 3G.
A comparative analysis done by a mobile technology website rootmetrics.com helps illustrate the staggering differences in speed:
— downloading a 20mb game over 3G takes less than three minutes; with 4G it takes less than 25 seconds.
— posting a picture to Facebook takes approximately 25 seconds over 3G; it can be done in less than a second with 4G.
— watching high-definition video over 3G could take one-five minutes for playback to begin; over 4G the video can be played in less than 30 seconds.
Not only is 4G faster it is rapidly becoming the norm internationally, having been rolled out at the start of the decade in a technology cycle that has seen new industry standards established every decade or so.
If Pakistan opts to go the 3G route it will have missed two technology waves: first, with 3G over the past decade, and now with rolling out 3G just when the world at large — including handset makers and network manufacturers — is adopting speedier, new-generation technology.
Moreover, as Salman Wassey, a long-time telecom executive who now runs his own company, explained the mobile handset market is already evolving: “40 per cent of internet-users in Pakistan use their mobile phone to access the net. There are six to seven million smartphones already and 400,000 smartphones are sold a month. By December, it could be two million a month. Give users fast connections, the latest data technology and they will use it. There could easily be an internet boom.”
Wassey downplayed concerns that 4G handsets and data connections would be prohibitively expensive: “The Chinese handsets sold here could easily go from 3G compatible to 4G. And, whatever the operators may say, there will likely be a major price war over data charges.”
So if, from a consumer perspective, faster is unequivocally better and relatively affordable too, why is the government not committed to introducing 4G and why are the mobile service-providers seemingly unenthusiastic about both 3G and 4G?
The short answer: money. For the government, it is about much-needed budgetary revenue the government believes it can raise by auctioning 3G licences; for the service providers, it is about keeping the licence and setup costs as low as possible at a time in which the industry’s overall profitability is low.
Senior government officials and service-provider executives offered their views on the 3G vs 4G debate, but only on condition of anonymity because the government is yet to announce what will be auctioned and when. In fact, so great is the confusion that mobile-phone-company executives claim the government is unclear about even basic differences between 3G and 4G and the optimal frequency bands in which they are used internationally.
“The finance guys think they squeeze 3G for all its worth and then a little later, do it again with 4G,” a government official said, citing the improbable sum of $2bn that has been mooted in a separate or joint auction of 3G and 4G. “Nobody really knows what’s going on.”
Ali Gilani, a veteran media consultant in the IT and telecom sector, explained the service-providers reservations: “A few hundred million dollars a licence, then another few hundred million to set up the network each — the operators are wondering if it makes economic sense,” Gilani said. “And the regulatory framework is a mess with so many overlapping agencies.”
And then there is YouTube, which industry experts claim was the main driver of mobile-phone data usage until its ban. “We’ll be the first country in the world where 3G is being introduced and YouTube is banned. What does the government plan to do about YouTube?” Gilani asked.