ISLAMABAD: A joint report of the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations says Pakistan is in an enviable strategic position given the fundamental importance of international bandwidth supply in determining connectivity.

The report released by the United Nations Commission for the Asia-Pacific region (ESCAP) says Pakistan along with Iran — the two countries outside the Central Asia+5 group — has the potential to bridge access to international submarine cables and provide greater bandwidth to the region as a whole, and could become the natural ‘southern route’ to connect Central Asia+5 to international networks.

If Pakistan does not live up to the challenge, it may well fall to Iran to eventually step in to fill the role. After all, Iran borders more Central Asia+5 countries than Pakistan does, according to the report.

It says that at 300Gbps Pakistan also has the highest international connectivity in the region. The reason is Pakistan’s coastline and direct access to submarine cable landing points. All other Central Asia+5 countries, with the exception of Georgia, are landlocked.

The report suggests that Pakistan needs to enable the access of its own population. Given the size of that population, 300Gbps translates to a lowly 7.1kbps per internet user, and a very low per capita rate of 1.7kbps. There is therefore significant work to do by Pakistan in this regard, it says.

The report says that Pakistan is one of Central Asia+5 countries that, at first glance, appear to be doing comparatively poorly. A lower-middle income country, it is clustered in the bottom tier of internet penetration countries, with only 13 per cent internet density.

Pakistan, however, stands out quite dramatically from its neighbours on a number of counts. A thorough analysis suggests the picture is far more nuanced and potentially far more positive.

With a population of 185 million, Pakistan counts for more than half of the ten-country total, immediately skewing regional averages. Citing an example, the report says that once Pakistan is excluded from the Central Asia+5 regional average internet penetration calculation, the average for the remaining nine countries rises to 33 per cent, up from 21 per cent.

The report says the cost of a mobile broadband subscription in Pakistan averages out to be less than 2 per cent of personal income in GNI PPP terms, clustering the country with the other top regional economies: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Kazakhstan, thereby suggesting that aggressive growth will continue.

Pakistan’s relative success in broadband when compared with other ‘Cluster 3 Internet’ countries can be attributed to a combination of market-led growth in mobile and mobile value-added services and the government’s IT sectoral push, the report says.

Despite a delayed 3G licensing process, there is much to suggest that the government’s approach to connectivity and IT overall has had a positive effect. The country has been pursuing an aggressive IT policy, aimed at boosting Pakistan’s drive for economic modernisation. Of particular significance has been the administration’s provisioning of e-government services, and support of education services, while in the private sector mobile money services have grown aggressively.

However, the report says that policy and regulatory choices made now will determine continued and future success. An open, competitive and dynamic environment will not only help with affordability but will also help bring nascent demand to the fore. Development of the local online content industry and the start-up ecosystem go hand-in-hand with both.

If Pakistan is able to capitalise on its strategic geographical location and position itself as a provider of international bandwidth to its land-locked neighbours as well as an alternative route to others, it will consolidate these early transitional developments and help accelerate transformation of the local digital economy, concludes the report.

Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2015

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