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The information challenge

February 29, 2016


The writer is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and works as a consultant in the US.
The writer is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and works as a consultant in the US.

EVERY year companies with an interest in the mobile and technology industry gather at the Mobile World Congress. Held in Barcelona from Feb 22 to 25, the Mobile World Congress’ theme this year was ‘mobile is everything’. The internet of things, connected via a fifth generation of wireless technology (5G), is the talk of town. The industry is making a push to develop an environment where every modern device is connected to and communicating with each other. Reliable, fast, and pervasive connectivity will form the backbone of economies.

To compete in a networked world, Pakistan’s economy will not only need reliable information networks, but a skilled workforce capable of operating and creating these systems. This will require the government to set a forward-looking policy to improve internet penetration and reliability across the country. Educational reforms that impart technical skills to children will also play a fundamental role in building future competitiveness.

The International Telecommunication Union releases a yearly index on the state of information and communications technology (ICT) in the world. In 2015, out of 167 countries, Pakistan ranked 143, dropping from its ranking of 138 in 2014. Out of the 32 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, Pakistan ranks 30, ahead of Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and behind India (131), Nepal (136), Mongolia (84), and Malaysia (64).

A forward-looking policy is needed to improve internet penetration

According to the report, less than 15pc of Pakistanis use the internet, and the number of active mobile-broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants is five; 15.9pc of households have a computer, and only 13.2pc have an internet connection. These numbers are not flattering.

The only upside is that 73pc of the population has a mobile-cellular subscription. With fast and reliable mobile-internet becoming more accessible after the much-delayed auction of 3G and 4G licences, internet usage numbers in the country are bound to improve. There is, however, a dire need to boost internet bandwidth in the country, which currently averages only 5.6 megabits per second.

The Industrial Revolution allowed societies in the 19th and 20th centuries to develop modern economies and transform lives. Such a rapid rise in incomes and wealth had not been witnessed before. The foundations modern Western economies laid during the early years of the Industrial Revolution are paying dividends to this day. China, the second-largest economy, has closed the gap, but still continues to trail Western economies in industrial innovation.

Today, we are witnessing an information revolution. Advances in semi-conductor and silicon chips manufacturing have enabled advances in computer and communications technology, laying the groundwork for a world that is now connected by mobile devices and computers. These advances, while connected to modern industry, are also causing seismic shifts in modern industrialised economies. Taxi drivers across the world have been disrupted by Uber and a string of poor Yelp reviews can lead to a quick closure of a restaurant. Gone are the days when General Electric promoted itself as a manufacturing behemoth — recent ads are touting GE as a technology company.

As these technologies permeate emerging economies, older economic models founded on labour-intensive manufacturing exports will be disrupted. The challenge for emerging economies will be to take advantage of this disruption to generate growth and not just be passive consumers. Economies that can create an enabling environment to use modern technologies in production processes will power ahead. Those that fail to educate and train a skilled workforce will find it hard to stay competitive. Economic stagnation and political instability will follow.

The information revolution, while disrupting economies, also carries with it tremendous opportunities. The 2015 ICT report estimates that only 58pc of Pakistan’s population is literate; secondary and tertiary enrolment rates are 38 and 10pc, respectively. Affordable smartphones and computers, connected to reliable internet connections, can be used to educate young Pakistanis.

For a country to make an impact on the global stage, small centres of excellence that incubate new ideas and entrepreneurs can go a long way. India is ranked 131 in the ICT index, but its technology hubs are world-renowned. Technology incubators can turbo-charge Pakistan’s capacity to make an impact in a global knowledge economy. New start-ups are already emerging. This environment needs to be nurtured for Pakistan’s economy to modernise. By making the right investments and policy choices, Pakistan can develop a modern economy ready to take advantage of ongoing and future disruptions.

To lay the foundations of an economy capable of competing in today’s interconnected world, the government need not do a lot. There are three keys to success. First, the government must create an enabling environment by pushing for increased and more reliable internet connectivity. Second, the government’s regulatory authorities must allow information to flow without any hindrance — YouTube bans and legislation to check against the internet’s ‘corrupting’ influence should not take up government resources. Finally, computing and technology skills, especially those related to coding, should be included in secondary school curricula.

Understanding how computer languages and information systems work are critical skills. EMC, a global technology company, estimates that by 2020, 44 trillion gigabytes of data will be created and copied annually. By educating schoolchildren about computer coding and data analysis, Pakistan can create a labour base to harness modern information systems to do the technical jobs and build new businesses that address 21st-century economic needs.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has espoused a vision of seeing Pakistan as a major transit hub connecting the markets of India and China with Central Asia. To achieve this goal, he has pushed for large highways that will connect Pakistan with the rest of the region. Without robust ICT, and a workforce skilled in the use of such technologies, these highways will only serve as transportation links for more competitive economies. To ensure that Pakistan is able to compete in a global economy transformed by the information revolution, he must build highways that bring the world’s information technology and knowledge to Pakistan.

The writer is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and works as a consultant in the US.

Published in Dawn, February 29th, 2016