As 2011 Comes to a Close…

AS 2011 COMES TO A CLOSE I THOUGHT I SHOULD HAVE A LAST LOOK AT MY TIME WITH USF (Universal Service Fund) Pakistan! Not that I will scratch it from my memory after this, but fact is that I won’t have much to say about it, except always wishing USF lots and lots of success.

It was an exciting and extremely fulfilling experience spread over four years and seven months. During the first weeks, it was almost weird, I was the only employee whose main concern was hiring a team and making the premises ready (which included getting worn-out carpets replaced with tiles). Very little help was available, exceptions being Mr. Baqai (to whom I am indebted for his invaluable advice and his help in selection of first team members), my former colleague from Siemens Mr. Masood Abassi (who helped me a lot with the logistics) and colleagues of MoIT, including its then Federal Secretary Mr. Farrukh Qayyum.

During those initial days (May 2007) a World Bank Mission came on a visit and since the USF model had been structured by World Bank consultants, the Mission was greatly interested with whatever was going on. I remember one member (Mr. Rajendra?) wanted my opinion as to by when USF would be able to carry out it’s first auction and sign the Subsidy Agreement for services in an unserved ‘Lot’. When I answered that I expected it to be within six months, he looked at me with the skeptic expression of, “He doesn’t know what he is talking about” and remarked that if that were to happen, I should get a Nobel Prize! We signed our first agreement on 4th October 2007 – in 5 months.

The secret of success was simply an awesome core team (for me, our first “team-building exercise” at Bhurban resort was significant). Thanks to the team, we started three programs one after the other, following extensive consultations and open forums with the stakeholders. We gained momentum with every passing month. Until May 2010, that is. That was when things went haywire and we hit a bad patch. There was nothing wrong within the USF (proven by several independent audits), it was all from outside, but very damaging. Thank God that by mid-2011, we came out of it, but the USF program suffered and as a consequence people of those unserved areas where we were steaming ahead, could not get services in time. But every cloud has a silver lining – the crisis convinced many that we had been doing our job cleanly and transparently.

There were several other challenges too, the biggest being the war-like situation in some of the remote USF areas and the (understandable) reluctance of Cellcos to bid in sparsely populated remote areas, where the operational costs are high and revenues are low. But at USF we were determined not to give up and to keep pressing ahead, wherever it was possible.

Now after four-and-half years I look back with satisfaction that, despite loss of more than a year, USF could make significant achievements. A total of Rs. 17 Billion (aprox US$ 200Mil) had been committed by USF as subsidy for ICT services in unserved areas that would surely help bring a silent ICT revolution in the hinterlands of Pakistan. The projects where bidding process was almost complete (but formal launching was to be done) amounted to an additional Rs. 6 Billion ($ 70 Mil). Among the provinces, largest share so far went to Balochistan – rightly so due to its large but neglected area. All this was done in an open, fair and transparent manner as duly acknowledged by all stakeholders.

So far USF provided basic voice telephony services to more than 3,500 villages; brought optic fiber connectivity (information motorways) to 58 unserved Tehsils (sub-districts) by laying nearly 4,000 kilometers of optic fiber cables in remote and difficult areas; sowed seeds of broadband in 256 smaller towns and cities (latest: 334,000 households and businesses had subscribed to broadband connections there) with providing free broadband to 943 Higher Secondary Schools (HSSs), Colleges and Libraries in those towns and cities, and establishing 291 Community Broadband Centers there.

And not to forget the about-to-be-launched program with anticipated most far-reaching impact, ie: an innovative program of broadband telecenters (with village-hotspots!) starting with a pilot project in 24 villages of all the four provinces. The pilot aims at discovering a self-sustaining model to provide education, training and eServices to the vast Pakistani population (above 60%) living in villages. Three to five hundred such telecenters are planned within this fiscal year alone.

There are several on-going projects where contracts are signed and work is under way. These include: 2,500 kms of optic fiber cables to connect another 44 unserved Tehsils in Balochistan, bringing broadband to another 230 HSSs/Colleges/Libraries plus 54 Community Broadband Centers.

Then there are projects where bidding process is complete but contracts are yet to be signed. These include voice telephony for 102 villages of Balochistan; optic fiber connectivity for 5 remote tehsils of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and broadband for 73 towns of Sindh, together with 93 Community Broadband Centers and 206 HSSs/Colleges/Libraries there.

In addition there are projects where pre-bid studies have been done and bids have been invited. These include broadband for 22 towns of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, along with the Broadband Community Centers and broadband for HSSs/Colleges/Libraries. Necessary pre-bid studies for several other projects were either complete or under way.

With such a vibrant and ambitious agenda and a core team of dedicated individuals who are fully capable of taking all kinds of challenges, USF is well on it’s way to make a mark to bridge the digital divide in Pakistan.

I sincerely wish USF Pakistan all the success in the world…