The PML-N has done well to appoint Anusha Rehman as the new Information Technology minister. As an ICT professional myself, I venture to suggest what the government should now do.
Information and communication technology is a fast-moving high-tech sector where policies get outdated quickly. The government should take up the job of creating the new ICT policy urgently, with inputs from all stakeholders. However, there is no need to wait for the policies to be in place before starting the long-delayed, vital ICT development programmes.
Broadband deserves a special treatment because its impact on the Millennium Development Goals is now widely acknowledged. Since 2010, the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development has been actively helping countries prioritise the roll-out of high-speed broadband networks through National Broadband Plans to support their goals of inclusive economic growth and competitiveness in the information age.
Most countries have realised the importance of Optic Fibre Highways and are working feverishly to increase fibre penetration. When I was working at Universal Service Fund, we made good progress in the programme, “Optic Fibre to every Tehsil”. Now, the need is to extend the fibre to all the 6,000-plus Union Councils, terminating at the community tele-centres there. Even in the short term, thousands of jobs will be created through this effort.
High-speed broadband connected community tele-centres could become a source for all kinds of information for villagers. Each centre, equipped with PCs, allied equipment, Wi-Fi hot spots and renewable sources of power, should be run by rural development organisations that have roots in those areas, with professionally trained trainers. The broadband connectivity available at these centres could then be extended to neighbouring schools, healthcare centres, post offices and government offices, etc.
Out of all the destinations of broadband, none is more important than in schools. Information and Communication Technology is all-encompassing since it impacts every sector of the economy. Therefore, if our new generation does not grow up with the knowledge of using ICTs, they will be left behind. It has been learnt that connecting schools with broadband is not the only need of the hour. In fact, the provincial education and school administrations should be on board to develop/provide relevant local content (with links to the curriculum), create portals, implement child protection policies, and train the teachers. The need to train cannot be stressed enough.
It is a pity that even Afghanistan has 3G and we do not! Worldwide, there are more than two billion 3G subscriptions. The PML-N manifesto favours 4G (100 million users worldwide). It is the private sector that then goes for the most viable technology in the given spectrum band. But there is simultaneous space for 3G as well as 4G. Therefore, the spectrum for both should be auctioned, with less emphasis on the price and more on widespread, time-barred roll-out obligations.
Fortunately, in ICT, government budget constraints are not something to worry about but the government has to provide clear policies, fair regulations and a level playing field to promote competition and let the citizens enjoy the fruits. If at all the government has to intervene with cash, it is in areas that the private sector doesn’t find lucrative enough. And, for that, there is the Universal Service Fund. It is the private sector which brought the 2G revolution in Pakistan, along with massive amounts of foreign direct investment, and it is the private sector which should be given the challenge again.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 11, 2013