While the government has taken revolutionary steps, some basic flaws in the system and a lack of direction are restricting Pakistan from harnessing its potential for digitisation.

Jazz CEO Aamir Ibrahim believes the outreach of 4G should be expanded as it is sunset time for 3G. But the ground reality is that around 90 per cent mobile sets that are being assembled in the country are compatible to the 2G technology.

He said there is no visible use of 5G in the country in coming years, but added, “We have to keep in mind that we need at least 60pc 4G among all consumers before going to 5G.”

In an interview with Dawn, Mr Ibrahim stressed that the basic tool of lifestyle was now connectivity and the recent Covid-19 lockdowns have proven that.

“The goal towards digitisation starts with layers of infrastructure — just like a railroad, a connectivity layer, we need robust digital infrastructure that is good fibre and good reliable 4G at a decent speed.”

As witnessed in recent months, all human needs, including food supply, healthcare, financial inclusion, agri-tech and even education, were largely fulfilled through internet connectivity and there is strong demand from the residents of remote parts of the country for fast and reliable internet connections.

Jazz CEO Aamir Ibrahim says the government’s focus has to be on the local assembly of smartphones, not 2G-compatible sets

“But I do not call 3G broadband as it is an obsolete technology now. Besides, the internet is only on mobile sets in Pakistan with more than 75m customers and there are only 1-2m fixed-line customers,” he added.

“We need to accept the lack of good mobile phone sets is one of the key barriers to growth of the internet in the country,” the Jazz CEO said and referred to the need for a policy decision by the telecom regulator, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).

He said Pakistan has a mobile set manufacturing policy, but the focus has to be on the assembly of smartphones, not 2G-compatible sets. Currently, around 53pc of all SIM subscribers use 2G sets.

“The PTA has to make mobile companies like us to sell locally assembled sets at instalments. It will help the companies have a customer on a long-term basis and the defaulters should be treated like bank loan defaulters. All SIMs issued on that CNIC should be blocked,” Mr Ibrahim added.

He said there is a need for declaring a digital emergency and setting the targets to determine national goals in this regard. Currently, Pakistan is 23 among 25 countries in Asia based on a study by Facebook and the Economist Intelligence Unit. Pakistan ranks 76 out of 100 countries.

“The goal is not to discredit Pakistan or the government, but to set the future course by identifying the impediments and seeking solutions that are acceptable for all,” Mr Ibrahim added.

To achieve Digital Pakistan goals and determine the ambitious targets, the authorities have to ensure transparency and consistency of policies and provide a level playing field for all.

He lauded the recent announcements by the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom about the incentives to the sector and the decision of the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) to establish alternate dispute resolution committees, expressing confidence that the move would prevent lengthy litigations related to taxation disputes in the future.

He also expressed concerns about the lack of confidence among government officers in making strong decisions as they fear about accountability cases. He stressed that there has to be mechanisms that officers of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) or any other relevant institution may be present in such meetings to determine that the process is transparent.

“We need to do something radically different and not to continue at this pace to achieve the digitisation targets,” Mr Ibrahim said, adding: “We need heavy investments in it and to invite investors a conducive environment is essential.”

He said all broadband companies are foreign investors and the basic need of all foreign as well local investors is predictability and equal treatment.

“The rent of RBS Tower is increased several times a year and there is no redress mechanism. While we are criticised at all forums for not providing quality internet in certain areas, the authorities there do not allow the operators to establish a tower. These are certain issues that can and have to be resolved,” he added.

He also referred to the litigation between the government and Jazz over the renewal of its operating licence. The company applied for the renewal in May 2019, but there was not any timely decision by the government. The matter is still in court.

Besides, he said, the renewal of spectrum licences is not auctioned around the world. Pakistan should not do it and the massive investment saved in terms of licence fee could be invested in infrastructure development and new technology.

“The base price has to be low,” the Jazz CEO added. “The focus of growth is in around 20pc unserved areas, but the cost of doing business in these remote parts is too high,” he said.

He also said the taxes on the internet, voice calls and even mobile sets were too high — up to 32pc. These were paid by customers and it was one of the reasons that restricted growth of new applications in the country.

“Phone is not a luxury item now. It was a computer as well as a tool for many activities, including financial transactions and bill payments. But the taxes on sets were quite high,” Mr Ibrahim said.

Mobile-based internet was a key source of awareness if not education. Even housewives learn more from YouTube about cooking nowadays than from their elders, he said.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, , March 15th, 2021

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