My participation in USF Workshop of APEC TEL 47

Such is the importance being given to Universal Service and Broadband all over the world that if you look at the APEC TEL Strategic Action Plan: 2010-2015*, the very first item is: “Universal access by 2015 – Expand networks to achieve universal access to broadband in all APEC economies by 2015”! So when I got the invitation to speak as an expert at USF Workshop of APEC TEL 47 in Bali, I was super excited. APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) is an organization of countries that border both sides of Pacific Ocean and obviously Pakistan is not one of them. Therefore it was exciting to be invited despite being from a non-APEC country. On top of that the person inviting was the extremely smart and stylish Pham Van Anh from Vietnam! You tell me.

Supposedly APEC-TEL 47 will generate recommendations that will be presented to the APEC-TELMIN (council of TELecom MINisters). The TELMIN will form their own recommendations which will become part of the agenda of APEC Summit to be held in BALI in November 2013. President Obama is expected to be one of the 21 leaders who will participate. Preparations are already going on for the summit (the brand new airport terminal building will also open in time). For Indonesians it holds special meanings as President Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia.

The very first day was this full-day session on USF with about a dozen speakers from different countries – Vietnam, Japan, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, USA, South Korea, and so on. One could hear about various solutions that have been adopted to provide universal service (almost always including Broadband) to those communities where it is uneconomical to do so, or for the disabled, or for disaster warning and emergencies. It appears that after initial inertia lasting some years, Universal Service Funds are finally coming of age and increasingly being put to ever better use.

For the first time I came to know of the scheme in South Korea, where they have a very interesting model of a “Virtual USF”. There is no real fund as such and what they do is that the losses of the operators who provide services to the designated PNLAs (Potential Net Loss Areas) are compensated up to 70% by rest of the operators. The total compensation amount that is settled is a result of “bargaining” among themselves (yes there is actually bargaining). The contributions are in proportion to their revenues. Consequently there is no USF administration because it is just an accounting matter and there are a couple of persons in the Ministry who are assigned to co-ordinate.

The Japanese too have a different model and they also compensate the losses of providing services to people living in remote/high cost areas, or people with disabilities, or for emergency lines and payphones. If the cost of providing such service is above the National Average Cost + 20, then that is loss! The basis of contributions is not pegged to revenues but to numbers of subscribers that the contributing carrier holds. Calculation is based on a per subscriber per month rate. The Japanese have not yet made Broadband as their target Universal Service. They say that first there has to be a considerable increase in broadband utilization rates and then a national consensus has to be reached!

I found the presentation of United States USF also interesting. It is one the oldest and biggest USFs (2012 disbursements US$ 8.7 Bil). They too strive to provide affordable services (incl Broadband) to rural and high cost areas (about 50% goes there), advance telecom services to schools and libraries (about 25%) and remaining to ‘life-line’ plus rural health care facilities. The contribution factor is announced quarterly. Currently it comes to approx. $1.2 per line, per month. US has the reputation of a costly administration (USAC) and a complex mechanism, whereby a substantial amount of the money collected is spent in USAC itself.

USO mechanisms of several other countries (Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, etc.) were well presented and sounded familiar! In the Vietnamese presentation, the picture of farmers helping to lay Optic Fiber Cables through the fields was inspiring. Dr Pham M Lam presented a wonderful overview of USF in APEC. I also got the opportunity of having useful discussions with Ibu Koesmarihati, Dr Tran N Le and Mr Wallace K H Aik. Generally in the presentations, two challenges echoed repeatedly – that of Capacity Building of USF staff, and Monitoring and Evaluation.

For me it was interesting to hear presenters from Thailand (Mr Channarukul) and Indonesia (Ibu Woro) tell the audience that they are in the process of reforming their USOFs. Thailand is about to launch a pilot under the new bidding scheme and in the next three years they intend to auction USF projects worth half a billion dollars, mainly broadband – a part of Smart Thailand program. Similarly Indonesia is in the process of reforming their USO. ‘Palapa Ring’ undersea Optic Fiber Cable project is already under way aiming to build a fiber optic network that will connect all the 497 districts/cities to support broadband.

What was exciting for me (again!) was that I am involved as a USF consultant

in both the above named countries. It does give a bit of satisfaction of being useful to some – if not to own people!

ICT Manifestos of three largest political parties of Pakistan

I must make it clear right at the start that I am a completely non-political person, and so is this blog about the manifestos of political parties. I have honestly tried to be as objective as I could. It came about because these days in Pakistan the election campaigns are in full swing and all the political parties have “revealed” their manifestos. Being an ICT professional, I thought lets check out what the main political parties are saying that they would strive to accomplish in the field of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs). So I downloaded the manifestos of the three largest political parties of the country and here is what I found.

“Information and Communications, Science and Technology” are clubbed together with about 270

words given to the chapter in the 74-page PPP manifesto, within the section on “Infrastructure for the future”. In the Executive Summary part it claims that PPP has been “in the vanguard of building an IT-based future” and it’s government “enacted policies that have resulted in substantial gains in the Internet and cellular technology”. These claims will be disputed by many as the fact is that no new policies were enacted during the last 5 years, in fact there wasn’t even a full-time IT Minister to lead such an initiative.

The manifesto promises “plans for 3G and 4G”, making broadband available all over the country, developing software parks and promoting education and vocational training using ICTs. It also promises developing financial, educational, e-business and other e-services, thus eliminating exclusion of low-income groups. It promises to bridge the digital divide by promoting mass literacy through public–private partnerships. It seeks to utilise ICTs to enhance disaster warning and access to justice. Interestingly it also mentions promoting accountability through ‘biometric attendance’ and cutting governance expenses through video conferencing and paperless workplaces. One also finds mention of IT in another section in the manifesto, that of ‘Inclusive and Equitable growth’.

There is something intriguing about two of the promises in PPP’s manifesto – setting up 250 ICT centers in smaller cities plus taking IT sector trade to US$ 5 billion. The intriguing aspect is that PML N manifesto also promises both these things – with exactly double the quantities!

In 2008 Pakistan was ahead of all its neighbors, but then India, Sri Lanka and China have surged ahead. Even the other countries that are still behind (Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Nepal) show much higher growth than Pakistan.

To be honest I was expecting PTI would have the most to say on ICT – due to PTI’s focus

on youth and their strong presence on social media. But I what I saw were little more than a 100 words in a rather short 31-page manifesto. It promises to sustain “The recent progress in the access to Internet facilities…”. But unfortunately ICT professionals like me do not think much about the “recent progress” (as an example see the figure given at the end to see what happened in the cellular arena, where Pakistan was ahead of others).

The manifesto promises a few ‘reforms’ that PTI would initiate – like making PTA (Pakistan Telecom Authority) more autonomous, providing free internet to private recognized IT institutes and Universities, and increased foreign currency holding ceiling for software exporters. Interestingly PTI manifesto also talks about streamlining Rules “to eliminate discrimination and provide a level playing field between government-owned and private telecom companies”. By government-owned telecom companies, it probably means PTCL and Ufone?

In addition in a couple of sections other than ICT itself, utilisation of ICTs is mentioned (like Tele-medicine, Tele-agriculture and computerization of land-records).

In PML N manifesto IT and e-Government are both covered in

the same chapter (about 900 words in 84+ page manifesto). It promises building Information society and knowledge economy on four pillars (Governance, Public Services, Local Software and Technology). It promises establishment of an eGovernment portal and introducing ICTs at operational levels of the government – in law-enforcement, judiciary, health, education, manufacturing, taxation and transportation sectors. It promises the familiar IT labs and laptops for education and promoting ecommerce and online availability of information for the citizens. Interestingly it promotes 4G over 3G, claiming that 3G window of opportunity has passed (?) and promises to leverage cell phones for seeking feedback from citizens.

PML N targets US$10 billion as software export by 2020 through, among other things, giving incentives to industry like start-up assistance to software houses and “revising IT curriculum”. It speaks of setting up excellence centers with ICT R&D Fund money and bridging the digital divide by “improving USF”, setting up WiFi hotspots and 500 (why only 500?) ICT centers in smaller towns. PML N manifesto also promises prevention of cyber-crimes and respect for Intellectual Property Rights.

IT and its elements are mentioned at several other places in the document, like in sections about Economic Revival, Tax Reforms, Civil Service Reforms, Revival of Confidence, Education, Youth, Democratic Governance, Science & Technology, Employment, Corruption and Accountability.

Concluding, let me say that a good or bad, short or long, manifesto doesn’t mean much, as the real question is what the party will do once it comes in power. As Mr Shahid Javed Burki aptly rephrases an old dictum: the intentions are good but the proof will be in their implementation!