News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Bridging the digital divide between the provinces and regions of Pakistan

Pakistan is the world's sixth most populous country. It is also one which features regularly in TV news broadcasts that remind us of the country's strategic importance - as a state armed with nuclear weapons; as a country whose long history of troubled relations with neighbouring India took a new turn after the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008; as a country with a porous border with troubled Afghanistan.

The country, however, has not featured very heavily here at DevelopingTelecomsWatch - before today, just five of the our first 100 stories even mention Pakistan. Today's short essay will, I hope, go some way towards making up for that glaring omission.

That I was able to round up a few interesting recent stories from the country is due mainly to my knowing of a very useful blog/news site -, set up and maintained by Babar Bhatti, a a senior IT professional now based in Dallas, Texas. Most of the news items, articles and reports referenced here today came to my attention via Babar's site and his tweets.

One item I found interesting was written by Babar himself, and concerns how the takeup of mobile telephony in Pakistan has been very uneven across the country's different provinces and regions. Mobile penetration in Pakistan currently stands at 54.11%, according to the World Cellular Information Service from Informa Telecoms & Media. Babar cites figures from the country's telecoms regulatory agency, which indicate a wide variety of cellular penetration rates in the four provinces:
Sindh, in the southeast of the country, is a major centre of diversified economic activity - heavy industry, finance and agriculture. The second best performer in terms of mobile penetration, Punjab, is the county's most populous region and its most industrialised. The two other provinces, where mobile penetration is well below the 50% mark, are places whose share of the national economy is much smaller.

Babar writes Balochistan's low cellular penetration rate is most likely attributable to the province having few urban areas and, as a result, high costs for the roll out of telecoms infrastructure. He feels, however, that recent Universal Service Fund (USF) projects may improve the situation in the provinces. I assume these include the three contracts recently signed by the USF and the country's incumbent fixed line and broadband provider Pakistan Telecommunication Company Ltd (PTCL), as reported on 3rd July by TeleGeography. These include arrangements to bring fibre-optic connectivity to all tehsils (administrative divisions) in southern Balochistan, involving the installation of 1166km of fibre-optic cable in the region.

Much of Pakistan's population is denied access to the range and quality of vital services taken for granted in highly developed countries. Two obvious examples are the provision of health care and education services. Canada-based technology journalist Jerry Blackwell, a regulator contributor to Wi-Fi Planet, wrote an interesting article earlier this month about how communications technology is making an impact with regard to the first of these.

Blackwell's article quotes Phil Cruver, President of KZO Education, an American company that develops content and technology for online interactive learning, who points out that "the literacy rate in Pakistan is only about 50%, and for girls, it’s lower. The country has about 1.3 million teachers now, but it needs double that number in order to meet the standards [in education] that are needed."

The article is part of a series which examines the state of the worldwide WiMAX industry in 2009. According to Phil Cruver, WiMAX will be "absolutely critical" in ongoing efforts to pull Pakistan's public education system up by the bootstraps. Cruver's plan is to deliver interactive streaming video-based learning over WiMAX networks and KZO has already launched pilot projects in Islamabad. This has involved connecting two schools to a WiMAX network operated by Wateen Telecom, a provider of telephony, broadband and multimedia services that is part of the Abu Dhabi Group, which also owns Pakistani mobile operator Warid Telecom.

Comments about technical issues and allegedly poor service for Wateen Telecom WiMAX customers were aired by Chris Cork, a British social worker settled in Pakistan, in September last year. Writing in Pakistani newspaper the News, Cork provided a personal history of the frustrations of getting a reliable Internet connection in the country during his time working there. This concludes with a none-too-complimentary account of dealing with a company whose "name begins with a 'W' and ends with 'n'" when he asked for an externally-mounted receiver to get full benefit of their service.

One Pakistani blogger, writing in December, also reported that the Wateen Telecom WiMAX service, the first such offering for consumers in the country, was facing bad press and suffering reliability problems. That writer's feeling seemed to be that this created opportunities for the providers of two other WiMAX-based services. One of these is Infinity from Orascom Telecom-owned mobile operator Mobilink, the market leader in the cellular space with an estimated market share of 29.74% according to WCIS. The other is wi-tribe Pakistan, part of an international collection of wireless broadband operations owned jointly by Qatari incumbent telco QTel and Saudi firm A.A. Tukri Group of Companies (ATCO). According to TeleGeography, wi-tribe Pakistan began commercial operations earlier this month.

Gerry Blackwell writes that according to the WiMAX Forum, at least two other operators, including Supernet (owned by Telecard, a fixed wireless operator known for its CDMA service) and Burraq Telecom, also plan to launch WiMAX services in Pakistan. The Supernet/Telecard offering, however, may be in doubt if nothing has changed since Babar Bhatti wrote in March about a dispute between wi-tribe and Augere, a European company that was planning to offer WiMAX services in Pakistan via the acquisition of spectrum in the 3.5Ghz band from Telecard.

Although some have raised concerns about Wateen Telecom's WiMAX service, Blackwell reports that Phil Cruver of KZO Education has no complaints: "It was so quick to get service," says Cruver. "We paid for it, and it was up and running within 24 hours."

Blackwell writes that when KZO first got involved in Pakistan, WiMAX wasn't on its radar. "To be very honest, we didn't know there was a WiMAX," Cruver says. "It's just serendipity that Pakistan has the first nationwide WiMAX network."

Cruver's last comment might not be accurate. Gerry Blackwell writes that Pakistan is really just "on its way to having a nationwide network", with service is only available in major population centers, and coverage spotty outside city centres.

As discussed, the second area of vital services in which WiMAX could potentially make a very valuable contribution in Pakistan (and other developing countries) is healthcare.

Earlier this year, Monica Paolini of Senza Fili Consulting (from whom I once sought advice about the agenda content for a Fixed-Mobile Convergence themed conference I hosted in Miami many moons ago) wrote a paper on the theme of expanding the reach of healthcare in developing nations with WiMAX. Sponsored by Intel and Cisco, this paper notes that today, in developing nations, patients have to travel to their nearest clinics or hospitals to receive even basic treatment and to more distant institutions for specialised or emergency care. Monica argues that this model does not provide comprehensive and efficient access to healthcare and suggests that reliable, always-on broadband wireless connectivity makes a new healthcare model possible -medical professionals reaching out to patients where they live and when they need care, bringing access to a range of medical resources through voice, data and video applications.

In her paper, Monica discusses an example from Pakistan - a Cisco trial combining satellite and WiMAX connectivity to mobile units that provide early oncological screening for patients in rural areas.

Overall, Monica uses her paper to make a case for why WiMAX stands out as an ideal technology to support telemedicine initiatives. Rather than focus on the capabilities of the technology, however, I'd like to consider the business models needed to make such initiatives a success.

Monica quotes Debra Sloane, Global Healthcare Solutions Partner Manager at Cisco, who says that "extensive cooperation among public agencies, health care providers and [telecoms] operators is necessary for the creation of new business models that can address the specific
needs of communities."

Just as we have noted that WiMAX networks in Pakistan are currently confined to urban centres, Monica notes that wireless networks tend to be initially deployed in high population-density areas and suburban business districts where the highest-paying subscribers can be found. Monica argues, therefore, that governments, health care agencies, and NGOs need to work together with network operators to ensure that operators see a business opportunity in under-served urban and rural areas. Perhaps Pakistan's Universal Service Fund could be used to intervene in this way. As far as I can tell, however, the USF's activties do not yet include any such initiative.

To conclude, while it seems that a number of worthy initiatives are improving the currently uneven access to telecoms and Internet services and to other vital services, Pakistan continues to be notable for a marked digital divide between its various regions.

1 comment:

  1. Good article providing insight into the current Wimax status and other valuable stats. Wimax is a failure, it is only a matter of time. rollout aside, maintenance of such networks is a nightmare and costly. Poor connection, dropped connections and low data rates are a norm for Wimax installations. Only a few fortunate ones close to the towers have a chance of reliable service.
    Poor Power infrastructure in Pakistan is another reason that will add to frustration as the Subscriber units installed outdoors (as mentioned by Mr. Cork) will require Mains power and UPS etc.
    No doubt it has traction due to its wireless nature providing easy penetration into remote areas. I would rather go with low cellular data rates than Wimax. Operators upgrading their cellular neworks for next generation can provide higher data rates with some mobility and reliability with higher rates for nomadic users.
    From my experience, I cannot see how a Wimax Operator can make profits. I would appreciate if somebody can give example of a single "Wimax only" operator with large rollout in a developing country and is making profits.


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