Why does Pakistan need 3G?

Published: September 7, 2013

An Apple Iphone is displayed by a user. The SC's intervention in the 3G auction case is a positive sign for Pakistan. PHOTO: REUTERS

The Supreme Court’s intervention in the availability of 3G technology in Pakistan should be received with a welcoming reaction, as the country is in dire need for high-speed mobile (portable) broadband connectivity.

Over the past few months, more than 160 countries have launched 3G services and the number of active 3G subscriptions surpassed one billion. Even in a small and poor country like Kiribati – situated in the middle of the Pacific with hardly any resources and considered to be one of the least developed countries of the world – 3G systems are being introduced to the public. Countries from Australia to the USA are allocating billions of dollars to deploy broadband infrastructures, whereas we need the highest court in the country to order for allocation of broadband systems, and finally use the God-given resource of frequency-spectrum.

Now the question arises as to why the world is going crazy for broadband?

Well, the main benefit of broadband lies in its capability as a deliverer of basic services to citizens in an extremely non-discriminatory way. Through applications such as e-education, e-medicine and e-governance, to name a few, users can easily have access to education, healthcare and governance. These services can be provided to all the citizens irrespective of how rich or poor they are and how near or remote they live.

One can receive healthcare through e-medicine, where doctors can gauge your health status via different applications and video chatting facilities. Similarly, children can learn and get education through multimedia and animations that can help them understand difficult concepts without having to rote learn them. If a lecture is given through video calling, it will be received by all, without any discrimination of class, gender, ethnicity or race. This is particularly important for those 70% of us who live in rural areas. In that respect broadband is a great equaliser of sorts!

Greater access to broadband has been found to help accelerate achievement of development targets. The Millennium Development Goals could be one such target, which Pakistan agreed to pursue along with the rest of the international community nearly a couple of decades back but has not paid much heed to it up till now.

 It is only with broadband that we can serve our exploding population, with a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 2.5%, at their doorsteps. This will promise an inclusive economic development in rural areas as well as prevent mass migration to urban centres, hence saving our cities from crumbling under their own weight.

Sceptics usually ask, why 3G? Is it to enable us to watch movies on the go?

Unfortunately, a lot of people only think of it in terms of smart phones. Although a large amount of productive things could be done with 3G smart phones, it is the 3G mobile broadband on PCs, laptops and tablets that is of real value for developing countries. To connect these devices to broadband, USB dongles are used. People in developed countries usually use mobile broadband in addition to the fixed broadband, but in developing countries mobile-broadband is often the only broadband access available. That does not mean we use it only for cell phones and not for offices and homes.

In Pakistan, broadband is available in less than 300 towns and cities. All of these 2.5 million odd broadband connections belong to the fixed broadband category. The problem is that we never had an extensive fixed broadband network, therefore the number of fixed connections that we can have is limited. In addition to this, Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) is the only dominant fixed-line provider in Pakistan and it has become a kind of monopoly broadband provider, which is causing a downfall in its services.

On the other hand, 2G cellular GSM networks are present all over the country and 3G will be accommodated with these cellular network providers. Thus 3G networks will reach 90% of the population with relatively less effort. I deliberately use the word “effort” and not “investment” because investment will come from private sector operators. The government does not need to bother about development budget and resource constraints. What else could one ask for!

Just like 2G was such an effective engine of growth in the last decade, 3G can also contribute significantly. Broadband deployment will unleash tremendous opportunities related to jobs, foreign investment, trade, and economic growth. For example, as the users grow in numbers, a completely new sector will emerge – that of local content, software and applications! And indeed, Government services like Education, Healthcare and Governance will immediately become possible for rural areas. Admittedly the private sector operators would deploy 3G mainly in cities, but for the rest the Universal Services Fund (USF) can work as initial investment.

Therefore allocating broadband frequency spectrum to operators is extremely urgent and essential. It should have been done five years ago. And as for the debate whether the licenses should be for 3G or 4G, there is one answer. The licenses should be “technology-neutral” – let the operators decide. They certainly know the market better.

Last but not least, it appears that the whole purpose of auctioning frequency spectrum is to get the short-term benefit at a big price and fill the budget gap. In my humble opinion, that is completely misplaced. We should be more concerned with maximum coverage in shortest possible time. That’s what the national interest demands.

Parvez Iftikhar

Parvez Iftikhar

Former CEO of the Universal Service Fund (Pakistan), he works as an Information and Communication Technology Consultant in various countries in Asia and Africa on ICT regulatory issues. Before USF he was country-head of Siemens Telecom in Pakistan. He tweets @Parvez_Iftikhar twitter.com/Parvez_Iftikhar

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Ahsan Mustafa

    Why does Pakistan need 3G? why are we even asking this question? There is a new technology in the world that has made a lot of peoples lives a lot easier and we should have it too. People in Pakistan are so scared of introduction of new technologies like its a bad thing. Technologies change lives, most of the time for the better and with one of the cheapest and most advanced telecommunication industries in the world we should have been few of the first countries to adapt this and other technologies that came after 3G. Its one thing to be corrupt and eat up the country from the inside, its another to pocket all that tax money and still deprive the private sector of technology that could maybe make our lives a little bit better. If I became president of PTA right now I would fire alot people, first for becoming a barrier for 3g and second for shutting down youtube. For once, give something back to the people.Recommend

  • http://- AluChat

    The Supreme Court’s intervention

    or INTERFERENCE?Recommend

  • Obaid

    I think the author follow this one up with: Why do we need electricity ?Recommend

  • Kappa

    Pakistan will adopt 3G once Zakir Naik will announce it is already mentioned in the scriptures.Recommend

  • ivehadit

    Mobile brings tremendous benefits to the economy and brings in tremendous revenue to the government. Is there more to be said? Why even ask the question? I would say, lets get 4G in.Recommend

  • Me

    Pakistan is always late in bringing new technology. Why should we stay behind when other countries are moving to 4G. 3G should be bought to Pakistan.Recommend

  • Khan

    I want 4G time to implement 3G is goneRecommend

  • Syme

    With youtube, torrents and porn sites blocked, I don’t see any reason for 3G or 4G or simply internet, Secondly the writers argument about tele-medicine clearly indicates his dissociation from existing medical infrastructure. E-education and governance. Seriously !Recommend

  • littlegiant

    How many of these services of EHealth, Education And governance are delivered in 3G in the west? Virtually little. We have a habit of being shameful about the primary use of SmartPhones and the reason why Iphone and Galaxy trounced Blackberry, which was a non-consumer platform – consumerism. These smart phones are the latest and most explosive engines of personalized and private consumerism – think of what are the most searched internet terms from Pakistan? Now you would be able to access all that with streaming videos in broadband and on the go anywhere day and night. And I am all for it!
    This blog is somehow implying that the ‘productive’ uses as the author calls them is the reason for why broadband is deployed and that’s just shere nonsense. The simple reason is that consumers would buy it and the telecom companies would love this new mineful of profit source that has now become the biggest endeavor in technology worldwide! Recommend

  • JOHN

    in india we are using 4GRecommend

  • 007

    Had Musharraf (The Dictator) stayed on, 3G would have been available long ago.Recommend

  • http://www.facebook.com/britishmuslims Mohammed Abbasi

    All this Bid’ah, we should stop this! The Maulanas will know the answer and way forward lets ask them!Recommend

  • http://www.piftikhar.com Parvez Iftikhar

    @Syme: No comments. What can I say to someone who doesn’t see any reason for 3G because “torrents and porn sites” are blocked! Recommend

  • http://www.piftikhar.com Parvez Iftikhar

    @littlegiant: you are right – the reason that consumers would buy it and the telecom companies would love it is that it is the new mineful of profit source. No denying that. But my point is that we can use mobile broadband for the good of those who cannot get the basic essentials of life (quality education, healthcare, governance, …). And it is not just a dream. If you care to expand your knowledge beyond “most searched internet terms from Pakistan”, you’ll find that several developing countries (Columbia, Peru, Thailand, …) are either doing it or trying to get there (India, Indonesia, Kenya, …). They are spending billions from their national budgets and from their Universal Service Funds to get broadband deployed and roll out these services. Even countries that are already far ahead (USA, Britain, Germany, Australia, …) are spending billions of dollars (yes billions) to get broadband to schools and rural areas. As for e-health, the west does not need to use broadband for it, as they do not have the issue of terrible lack of facilities outside the main cities – and travel to the nearest main city for a patient is not an ordeal. Recommend

  • http://www.piftikhar.com Parvez Iftikhar

    @AluChat: sometimes even interference can be welcome! Recommend

  • http://www.piftikhar.com Parvez Iftikhar

    @JOHN India has more than 300 million 3G subscriptions – and growing… Recommend

  • http://www.piftikhar.com Parvez Iftikhar

    @ivehadit the question has to be asked as a lot of our countrymen/women don’t believe what you say is true.Recommend

  • Rumormonger

    We don’t need to be bombed into stone age. We are self-propelling towards that direction.Recommend

  • saad riaz

    Being the telecommunication consultant my self, I find this post misleading. 3G is nothing more than a wireless broad band access technology and its unavailability should not impact the projects author have mentioned since we have alternate internet access technologies including FTTH/Wimax and DSL available in Pakistan. Although I agree that we should have 3G and 4G available but the idea that this is really a show stopper for the E health and E Education projects is absolutely wrong. People should know that Pakistan is the very first country who deployed the largest Wimax Network in the world back in 2008. WiMAX is more advanced technology than 3G in terms of speed and feature and is termed as 3.5G around the globe.A part from that, the Fiber infrastructure along with the PTCL copper infrastructure is available in most of the parts for the internet access.Its the internet availability across Pakistan which should be the concern not the technology. Weather its 3G ,4G or WiMax , the end user will be getting the same 1 mpbs / 2mbps connection keeping in view the average price per Mbps by the upstream provider of Pakistan. The introduction of 3G and 4G will only help the operators in terms of cost and infrastructure. The only edge 3G have is the availability of hand held terminals/cell phones which makes internet access more handy as compared to other technologies which requires you to carry a small modem all the time.Recommend

  • Naveed Alam Khattak

    We are waiting for 3G. I don’t know why our govt is delaying this. World is now converting into 4G connections and we are still waiting for 3G… Please expedite.Recommend

  • http://gilgithandicrafts.wordpress.com/ Zaheer Abbas

    Good read , of course that’s gonna be the next thing to work right after we fix energy crisis!Recommend

  • Shahid M. Haq

    I am waiting and looking forward to the business growth, development avenues and the entrepreneurship opportunities this might create. We need to look at it as an facilitator or engine not just a media. The debate needs to move from the information and entertainment domain to the commercial domain. Maybe then it becomes less debate-able.Recommend

  • Faisal Tasleem

    Simply a political matter from government and a bond with Etisalat to delay 3G launch. Telecom is a industry, where from labour to top professionals get accomodated, from office peon, to clerk and executives will get jobs… but who will think so much from govt. side for easy relief for common ppl. :)Recommend

  • http://www.piftikhar.com Parvez Iftikhar

    @saad riaz: I am sorry but you seem to have missed the point completely. Indeed there are many technologies available in Pakistan, but unless broadband reaches the rural areas of the country (where 60 to 70% people live), we wont be able to take eServices to them. Yes WiMax came in 2008, and you may call it 5.5G, but my concern is: has it ventured out of the cities? No. In fact even in cities it has failed to fulfill the demands. DSL only gets deployed on copper cables and we have around 5 million pairs of those, out of which 80% are either in cities or unusable. FTTH? You probably dont live in Pakistan! Optic Fiber cables in the backhaul hardly reach Tehsil HQs – leave alone villages or even Union Councils.
    And thanks for conceding in the end of your comment that ‘introduction of 3G and 4G will help operators in terms of cost and infrastructure’. This is exactly that will ultimately benefit my countrymen! And also for agreeing that 3G has an edge in availability of hand held terminals/cell phones which makes internet access more handy as compared to other technologies – although I am more excited about connecting PCs with the help of 3G dongles, which are now cheaply available all over the world.
    I agree that its the (high speed) internet availability across Pakistan which should be the concern, not the technology. But then “consultants” like you and me should guide our non-technical leaders and others who decide, how to make that availability possible. Right now 3G seems to be the best bet.Recommend

  • http://www.piftikhar.com Parvez Iftikhar

    @Zaheer Abbas: No my dear. We cant afford to wait for one thing to be fixed before starting to fix another! As I have mentioned in the blog, in any case the Government will not have to do much to deploy 3G. So: allocate the 3G spectrum to the operators and fix the energy crisis while they deploy 3G networks!Recommend

  • http://gilgithandicrafts.wordpress.com/ Zaheer Abbas hunzai

    @Parvez Iftikhar: agreed!Recommend

  • Raisani

    We are crying for 3G when the world is moving on 4G. its too late for 3G now, its better to be 4G now or else we’ll once again be behind at least a decade for the 4G technology. Recommend

  • Fariha

    Puh leaseee. Who the heck do you think is even going to use 3-G internet service for useful purposes…? Like education and governement…? A very very small percentage of people might consider using it for business and work purposes, but besides that, the younger generation who actually afford and have smart phones like the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy are going to use it for nothing but Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other social networking. Or useless things. No need for 3-G in Pakistan. I think Wifi and internet services that mobile networks offer are enough..Recommend

  • http://gilgithandicrafts.wordpress.com/ Zaheer Abbas Hunzai

    @Fariha: regardless of 3-G’s uselessness to greater Pakistani population it is indeed going to be a very facilitating and tremendously benefiting.
    A Professional IT Official in his Article at Dawn said we are loosing hundreds of millions of USD worth of income due to lack of #3-G.
    There are 30 million + internet users , almost 11 million ACTIVE Facebook users (socialbackers.com) in the country which is a sign for greater potential of digital media.Recommend