ITCN Asia 2014 – 3/4 G Impetus to growth

“This question may only be answered by someone who does NOT agree that YouTube should be opened”, I jokingly challenged the panel of eight high-profile experts sitting on the stage when a young participant at ITCN Asia 2014 (Karachi, 26thAug ’14) stood up and, lamenting the losses to the youth due to YouTube blockage, asked how could it be re-opened. I was moderating at this ICT annual event as we (the newly formed “ICT Forum Pakistan”) were invited to co-organize and co-host this year’s conference.

It is always enlightening to hear reputable professionals at ITCN’s conference track. However for me, it has been a little irksome that the speeches and presentations do not always relate to an overall theme (in fact some are just company sales presentations). Even those that are related to a theme, are not coordinated in any way and therefore there is lack of coherence and repetition. Thus it is normally impossible ‘to take something home’. Organizing this conference provided us an opportunity to try structure it in a way that would take care of the above concerns.

To start with, since 3G and 4G are presently being deployed in the country and it is a good time to talk about it’s growth, we picked up “3G and 4G – Impetus to Growth” as our theme. Then we went on to select speakers from varied backgrounds in order to cover the theme from all angles. Hence we selected an un-biased Senior Professional and high level professionals from Fixed-line Operator, eServices Provider, Equipment Vender, Government, Regulator and two Mobile Operators. Although this is still an incomplete representation of stakeholders, but it did lead to “one of the most interesting sessions of ITCN Asia conferences in years” – according to Dr Khurshid Nizam, President of e-Commerce Gateways (the main organizers).

The first speaker, independent senior professional Mr. Nooruddin Baqai provided a historical perspective, important to learn lessons. Since he used to be in the middle of the action a decade back, he could effectively share the experiences and the results. With the help of statistics he highlighted that direct contribution of ICT sector to the GDP actually reduces once the booms are over and it is the indirect contributions that keep adding to GDP growth. He thus asserted (like several after him) that the focus of the government should not be collection of ICT revenues, rather it should aim to gain through the resultant economic development. He maintained that in order to ensure continued growth and socio-economic benefits to the society, the government has to do the most, in terms of investing in ICT usage and adoption.

As it is the Mobile Operators who are the actual providers of 3G and 4G, there were two speakers from this segment. The first one was Mr Niaz Malik, Chief Corporate Officer of CMPak (Zong), the only operator who obtained 1800 MHz for 4G. After talking about the new services that would now become possible and the resulting benefits, he stressed upon the importance of investment in the eco-system. Interestingly he said that it should be done not just through government’s efforts but also through collaboration among the telcos themselves! The second speaker from the same segment was Mr. Ehtisham Rao, Director B2B Marketing of Mobilink, Pakistan’s largest mobile operator. He talked about the challenge of OTTs (Skype, Viber, Tango, etc.) who operate free of any regulations in the country. He argued that the Telcos need not be vary of the OTTs, rather the two posses complimentary user datasets, which could be one of the grounds for collaboration. He also said that Telcos have a lot more to offer than OTTs, like mWallet, mBanking, M2M, etc; enabling businesses, and therefore the opportunities for Telcos to grow were huge.

Mr Naeem Zamindar (till recently CEO of Wateen Telecom) talked from the perspective of a Fixed Line Operator, who is both a competitor (with its fixed broadband in the last-mile) as well as a facilitator (provider of backbone/backhaul) for wireless broadband. In his short, but full-of-energy talk about the importance of WiFi, he under-scored that 70% to 80% data communication takes place from the office or the home, where WiFi is undisputedly the dominant choice for broadband access. He informed that in China, China Mobile offloads 72% of its mobile data traffic to WiFi. Other than WiFi, he underlined the usefulness of Optic Fiber Cables – not only in the backhaul. He claimed that there is a demand of at least five times more Optic Fibers than the present deployment in Pakistan. He predicted that in one year, when TV cable operators will also start upgrading their networks with fibers, inflection point of broadband growth will be visible in Pakistan.

Mr Salim Rafik, COO of NADRA Technologies Ltd, represented the largest eGovernment service provider in the country. He explained that although with 3G/4G the quality of service to the populace will improve, there would still be huge other challenges. Giving an example he said that content provider is always at a loss to decide which platform he should place his bet on, as in the last decade there have been lots of ups and downs with platforms like Symbian, Black berry, iOS, Android, Windows, etc. Quoting statistics he also lamented the trend that only 16% of users actually pay for the Apps that they use. But thankfully, due to the fast upcoming ‘internet of things’ and the great population bulge of youth in Pakistan, he was upbeat regarding the growth prospects of broadband.

The perspective of equipment suppliers was presented by Mr Ashley Gold, CEO Ericsson Pakistan. Quoting from Ericsson Mobility Report 2014, he too expressed optimism regarding growth prospects of wireless broadband, mainly owing to two factors: The first one is the gigantic potential of all kinds of connected devices – globally estimated to be 50 billion by 2020. And the second one being the extraordinary growth in mobile data traffic over smartphones, which are set to be the main driver leading to a networked society. He recommended that elements of networked society should be part of the ICT Policy.

Government’s perspective was presented by Mr Muddassar Hussain, Member Telecom Ministry of IT, that is ultimately responsible for ensuring that wireless broadband helps meet the government’s socio-economic goals. He elaborated elements out of the new Policy, that the Ministry is presently formulating, and the multiple new challenges that are being faced, when the edge (Apps and Services) has come to dominate the core. He informed that the draft of the policy will be put up for public consultation in a couple of weeks. He assured that the new policy will stress upon measures like putting more reliance on public-private partnerships, making more spectrum available, supporting collaborative eGovernment and remodeling USF and ICT R&D Fund, etc.

The floor was then opened for Q&A which generated a very lively discussion, touching myriad of topics like digital divide, lack of fiber penetration to villages, ICT jobs, entrepreneurship, etc.

Finally Dr Syed Ismail Shah, Chairman PTA wrapped up the conference proceedings. He elaborated the challenges that PTA has to face in performing it’s tasks and shared his ideas as to how PTA intends to remove some of the barriers to growth identified in the presentations. He too advocated that ICT, by itself, should not be considered a big source of revenue generation, rather be used as an enabler for bringing efficiencies in all sectors of the economy. Following his short remarks for each presentation, he assured all of Regulator’s best efforts to give the necessary impetus to growth of wireless broadband.

The overall outcomes were quite expected. Almost all speakers opined that in order to reap enormous benefits of ICTs, the government has to play a more effective role as an enabler and a facilitator, for example by:

  • decreasing it’s reliance on direct revenues from the ICT sector
  • developing eco-system through public-private partnerships, particularly relating to e-services like education, health, governance and agriculture
  • subsidising (through USF) backhaul connectivity to remote corners of the country to deliver eServices to citizens through broadband.
  • becoming the biggest consumer of ICT/broadband itself,
  • releasing a lot more spectrum, at easier terms

The speakers asked the Regulator to keep the lite-touch regulation and take further steps to facilitate deployment of WiFi hotspots and data traffic WiFi off-load by mobile operators.

On the other hand the Operators were asked to collaborate among themselves to strengthen their business cases by infrastructure sharing and by jointly developing applications and services.

(By the way nobody could answer the YouTube question as how to unblock it – except a non-serious suggestion of staging a dharna to get it unblocked!)

At the Exhibition


3G and 4G – what a waste…

If you can read Urdu, read the text on the accompanying picture and imagine (in case you can’t read the text, even then imagine!) how would it be if same information is conveyed to the agriculturists using VIDEOS! And imagine if these videos could be seen on cellphone screens of the targeted growers of the targeted area, timed according to relevance and usefulness! Helping the growers and educating them about the latest methods of improving productivity in this manner has the potential of bringing an agricultural revolution in the country! This is the power of wireless broadband – like 3G and 4G!

The accompanying picture is a real-life example where an international donor agency, a provincial government and a cellphone service provider have teamed up to convey important information to peach growers, through SMS. But the text itself acts as a barrier because most farmers are unable to read. Even if they can read, Urdu is not understood in most rural areas. And even if the language is changed to the local one, any text is prone to misinterpretations.On the other hand conveying information with the help of short video clips helps bridge all these issues. Such potential benefits of broadband do not end with agriculture, rather these extend to all vital sectors – e-education, e-health, e-governance, e-commerce, and much more.

In developing countries the greatest impact that broadband makes is in semi-urban and rural areas – in areas where it is difficult to physically deliver pubic services and people have to travel to nearby big cities. Access to e-Services like e-Agriculture not only leads to economic uplift of citizens of those areas, rather it has several side-benefits too, for instance reduction in migration to large cities.

With the handing over of the long awaited licenses for 3G and 4G technologies, wireless broadband is now being rolled out in the country. The handing over of the licenses was a great occasion, although it would not have been such a big deal if the previous administration had not failed – thrice! But now that it has been done (credit to MoIT and PTA) we must remember that if we rest on our laurels, then we are surely wearing those at the wrong place! This is the time to start taking those next steps, so that the new technologies are not just used to download movies and Bollywood songs (although there is nothing wrong with doing that as well) but also to educate and make people more productive. The country as a whole should be able to reap the benefits of an inclusive growth.

Therefore what we require next are those videos that we just mentioned – the “Content” – dubbed in local languages. Such video-clips can be produced either with the help of real actors or with animations (just like those safety videos shown aboard the airliners now-a-days). Content that is meant for every sector of the economy. No doubt that there is a huge amount of very useful content available on the net, but there are several other issues with that. Firstly language would be an issue again, secondly rural folk will find it difficult to search in the vast ocean of internet, and finally (hopefully temporarily) the main source of such content, YouTube, stays blocked in Pakistan!

Sooner than most people think, smartphones are going to be the access devices. Big global players are already working hard to make the smartphones affordable, particularly for the large populations of developing economies. Google announced last month at it’s annual developers conference in San Francisco that it was working on a low-cost smartphone aimed at emerging markets as part of an initiative called ‘Android One’ ( Earlier, Mozilla announced at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, that they will help develop a $25 smartphone, which will start selling by next year in India and Indonesia. According to a June 2014 report by Ericsson, globally smartphones accounted for around 65% of all mobile phones sold in first Quarter of 2014, compared to around 50% during same period last year (

With the passage of time, cellphones will be used less and less for voice and more and more for data communications (it is already true in case of those of us who are active users of broadband via cellphones). Kids of the future will be amazed to know that the cellphones were originally created for voice! International Data Corporation (IDC) ( Worldwide report shows that already 1.5 times more smartphones are being sold than PCs + Laptops + Tablets combined since 2012. By 2017 this figure will be two-times. According to a Nokia study, in most of the world 30% of the cellphones are now smartphones, which is rapidly increasing. In Pakistan it is around 10%. But that should not be seen as low because in Pakistan we are only in the introductory phase of wireless broadband.

Thus all that spending on providing free laptops and tablets by the federal and provincial governments may be saved! Instead the efforts should focus on creating that all-important, urgently needed, local content, and making it available to the citizens in a way that they do not have to pay for it (already one-of-the-highest taxes on ICTs in the world, is causing enough harm). But unfortunately on the content front, there are no signs of any activity by the government. We, as a nation, are missing out on a unique opportunity to leapfrog and catch up with many of the developing economies who are galloping ahead riding the broadband wave – including our friends in Africa. When I got invited to the pan-Africa ICT4Ag conference in Rwanda late last year ( I had the astonishing opportunity to see firsthand the deep and impactful use of ICTs in Agriculture in some of the African countries.

So here is what the federal and provincial governments need to do (with MoIT providing necessary guidance):

  1. Bringing the enormous experience related to Agriculture, Education and Health, etc. available in various ministries, and enormous experience of content creation available in the private sector together, and usefully employing all that to create wonderful content!
  2. Simultaneously using the funds available with USF, helping the telcos speed up roll-out of broadband in non-lucrative areas by investing in two infrastructure components: (a) Optic Fiber Cables to villages, to provide backhaul for wireless broadband, and (b) the last-mile access of wireless broadband for the villagers.

Unless the true potential of wireless broadband is understood, and steps taken to use it – just like several other developing countries are doing – the huge opportunity presented by 3G, 4G, etc. is going to be nothing but a terrible waste…


My first time in Liberia

As I write this, I am returning from Monrovia, in Liberia, a country that has a rather interesting history. It was the first republic in Africa, established back in 1847 for the liberated slaves of America (hence the name ‘Liberia’) who were brought and settled here to work on rubber and palm plantations (some kind of innovative colonialism perhaps). But patronage of ex-slaves by the US created a ruling class of its own, who ruled Liberia merrily for more than a century, when finally the original inhabitants of the land rose against them, leading to two messy civil wars, from 1990 to 2003, with a 2-year period of relative calm in-between. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives, before UN intervened and brought in peacekeepers – among them, Pakistani soldiers and military engineers.

Saying hello to a UN peacekeeping soldier from Pakistan in Liberia

It is because of this “US connection” that the Liberian flag resembles the US flag, albeit with only one star, and the Capital Monrovia is named after the fifth US President, James Monroe. Unsurprisingly, the name of the largest mobile phone operator in Liberia is “MTN Lonestar”. Another consequence is that almost everybody speaks English. Not a mixed English, like we in Pakistan, but the accent makes it somewhat challenging to understand sometimes.

Liberia is an emerging but poor country, with rather small middle-class (but yes, they have 4-G!) . As always in the developing world, there are accusations of corruption against the rulers, one does however see a substantial amount of infrastructure development work taking place, mainly with donor money. A lot of it is being carried out by Chinese companies – roads, highways, office buildings, mines. That is why one frequently sees Chinese people in Monrovia. Someone claimed that the Chinese investments in the last fifteen years in Africa exceed what World Bank and others did in the last fifty years (and I used to think we were the only ones benefiting from the Chinese largess).

I was in Liberia for a week on a consulting assignment, as Liberia is in the process of setting up UAF (Universal Access Fund) to be able to serve their rural areas with ICTs. Half of the four million inhabitants of the country live in rural areas (the other half live in Monrovia alone). We were a team of consultants from UK, North America, Pakistan and Liberia, led by David Rogerson of Incyte consulting ( I was representing Commonwealth Telecom Organisation ( David Townsend and Will Burnfield of Great Village ( were other colleagues. Our main discussion partner was Liberia Telecommunications Authority (, which has a 5-Member Board of Commissioners, including the Chairperson.

Conducting my part of UAF stakeholders workshop in Liberia

The week was a great learning experience for myself (one never stops learning), as I got to talk to various decision-makers in the ICT space – among them the Minister of Telecom, Deputy Minister of Finance, Chairmen Standing Committees on Telecom in the Senate and the House of Representatives, CEOs of the three largest Telecom Operators and several others.

Meeting with the Minister of Telecom and his deputies

LTA Chairperson Ms Angelique Weeks was not only the most important person in our discussions, but also the most lively, full-of-energy. She and her Commissioners had lengthy meetings with us – even after office hours – absorbing and discussing everything that we had to tell and taking quick decisions. She is the first female Telecom Regulator I have come across.

LTA Commissioners (including Chairperson, third from left), the Consultants and others, discussing proposed Regulations with the help of Video Projector, in the office of Chairperson LTA.

The present ruler of Liberia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, also happens to be the first female head of state in Africa. This reminds me of this highly educated Pakistani young lady, Nyda Mukhtar from Islamabad, whom I met there. She is working with Liberian Ministry of Finance on a two-year fellowship. I think it requires a huge amount of courage to live away from home in a country that is still trying to come to terms with the aftermath of long and bloody civil war and where proper security apparatus is not yet in place. It is heartening to see Pakistani girls venturing out like this!

Coming back to my mission, at this point in time they have the Policy and the necessary Parliamentary Act in place, which define the governance structure/framework of UAF. Together with us, now they are working on formulating the Regulations and the necessary documentation for Pilot projects to test the proposed processes. Therefore we engaged with all concerned to incorporate their ideas and address their concerns, in an effort to bring all stakeholders on board. Our endeavor is to implement international best practices, remaining within the promulgated laws and the peculiarities of the land. It is challenging in some respects but offers some great opportunities too. I look forward to returning to Liberia to carry the process forward in another couple of months.

My first time in Rwanda and ICT4Ag Conference

I was in Rwanda (3 – 9 Nov. 2013) on the invitation of CTA (French acronyms for “Technical Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation” – to the 4-day ICT4Ag (ICT for Agriculture) conference to speak on the importance of Universal Service Funds in providing connectivity to rural areas. My presentation (together with two others) was followed by a question-and-answer session in the ballroom of Serena Hotel, the biggest in Kigali (yes, its not only in Islamabad!). All African countries were represented, with experts from several non-African countries too (notably India). In all, more than 300 delegates from 61 countries were there. I was the only one from Pakistan and personally for me it was a great learning experience, like attending a 4-day crash course on ICT4Ag!

Presenting at the ICT4Ag conference in Rwanda (6th Nov. 2013)

I thought it was a huge event for a small country like Rwanda (population 11 mil). But I was astonished to know that just a few days ago there had been an even bigger “Transform Africa Summit” (TAS) with 1,500 delegates, where they resolved to transform Africa using the power of ICTs. TAS was co-chaired by Rwandan president Mr Kagame and Secretary General ITU Dr Toure.

Mr Kagame has been the president of Rwanda since 2000 and although democratically elected, he is somewhat controversial and is known more as a “benevolent dictator”. But I heard only praises for him from Rwandans. Under him the country has grown at an average annual growth rate of 8%. His cabinet-team is known to be very competent. We saw a glimpse of their dedication during the four days, when the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of IT and Youth, were present for a large part of the time. During her speech at the gala-dinner the Agriculture Minister told us that the IT Minister was originally a software engineer! I think combining Ministries of IT and Youth is also an idea worth following. The two go together!

After my presentation, I had the chance of discussing with Mr Steve Mutabazi, the ‘ICT Strategist’ of Rwanda Development Board, about the recent decision that the entire telecom infrastructure (fiber cables as well as LTE last-mile delivery infrastructure) will now belong to one single state-owned company in partnership with Korea Telecom. Private Sector Service Providers will be able to compete but will be using the same infrastructure. He explained their reasons, that primarily it will prevent duplication of infrastructure and make the operators invest in services. The contract with Korea Telecom for this unique enterprise is for 25 years. It will surely be very interesting to watch it over the years.

Other than ICTs, Education gets a big importance in Rwanda. 17% of their national budget is reserved for Education, which is free for 12 grades, with medium of education being English from 4th grade onwards. As could be seen in this conference Agriculture is also high on the list of priorities. Rwanda is considered a model in how the aid money should be spent for development of people as a whole, rather than a few. Even otherwise, despite construction going on at many places, Kigali looks very clean (eg: I did not see any over-flowing garbage bins). Roads have no potholes – although roads leading to the villages are not metaled. Obviously many more roads still need to be built.

Passing through a village in Rwanda

The ICT4Ag Conference had three parallel streams and the emphasis was more on inter-active discussions and less on power-point slides. Most of the presentations and the following discussions were truly thought provoking. I found the sessions about ICT-based Commodity Exchanges and the likes of “iCow” (SMS based information and education platform), “Esoko” (mAgric platform for tracking and sharing market intelligence) and “Trac FM” (interactive radio talk shows with parallel SMS polls), particularly interesting. There was also a small exhibition going on which showcased several initiatives and ICT4Ag products.  Apart from all that, there were two very interesting items.

The ICT4Ag Conference App for Smartphones

The first one was the very useful ICT4Ag App, for smartphones, which the participants were asked to download. The App provided every piece of information about the conference, continuously updated with any announcements and changes in program etc. And since free WiFi was always available, the App freed us from carrying multiple documents.


The second special item was the “Hackathon”, a contest between teams of ICT professionals from various African countries, competing to create the best – and sustainable – Apps for Agriculture.  This had to be done within three days. On the fourth day they had to make presentations about their Apps, including their business models, and answer piercing questions by the judges. The winning team got 3,000 Euros plus another 3,000 promised to cover costs of initial running of their newly developed App in real world.

A team presenting their newly developed App to the 4 Judges and the audience

The 5th day was reserved for field trips, where they proudly showed us ICT4Ag development projects under way. Participants were sent descriptions of nine separate trips in advance so that we could choose what we wanted to see.

Arranging two huge conferences on ICTs within a short period of time clearly shows that leaderships with vision realize the importance of ICTs for development of their nations…

Audience at one of three conference streams


I have a problem with GSMA!

I have a big problem with the findings of the recent otherwise very comprehensive and detailed GSM Association sponsored report on Universal Service Funds (GSMA Resources). It has been prepared by Ladcomm Corporation, compiled mainly by the well known fellow consultant Lynne Darwood. No praise would be too high for the amazing amount of information collected from all across the world (64 countries). I know how difficult it is to collect, to verify and to corroborate, information that  is mostly inaccessible. The team at Ladcomm must have worked really hard to come up with something as awesome as this.  

One of the many USF funded solar-powered cell-sites in southern Pakistan

But as someone who headed a USF organisation for nearly five years (and thank God this one is known to be among the better ones) my big problem is with the set of “Key Findings” that appear as a separate section. In these findings GSMA is proclaiming that USFs are inappropriate and irrational and that there are better alternative approaches. In my opinion GSMA should not be doing this because it is based on deductions that appear to be misleading. Let me try to explain why.

Inability to disburse funds

The most significant (though not new) finding of the GSMA Report is that USF Administrations and Governments have been able to disburse far less than what is collected. Now this is true, but not right! Many USFs have infrastructure roll-out plans – even legally binding contracts – worth hundreds of millions of dollars extending over several years, where the funds are committed to be disbursed, waiting for the targets to be reached. Therefore instead of just looking at disbursed sums one should also be looking at the allocated and planned sums. India is quoted as an example of the huge undisbursed amount, so I talked to Mr Ravi Shankar, Administrator of Indian USOF ( He informed me that the total amount collected since 2002 is Indian Rupees (INR) 47,000 crore (1 crore = 10 million), out of which INR 15,600 crore has been disbursed and INR 15,800 crore allocated, which leaves a balance of INR 25,000 crore. The recently launched National Optic Fiber Network (a flagship Indian Broadband project) is estimated to cost nearly the same. Now with the present annual inflow of INR 6,000 to 7,000 crores, there wouldn’t be enough for the upcoming projects of cellular towers (with renewable energy plus 5-years Opex) in the North-Eastern areas and other 56,000 yet-unserved villages across the country. Ladcomm’s figures are true but the inferences are not. The devil hides always in the details.

Similarly in case of USF Pakistan ( it shows that out of US$550 million collected only $90 million has been disbursed. But it fails to mention that through the legally binding contracts with the operators, three to four times that amount is committed – despite the previous government’s uncalled-for political interference and incompetent handling of the Fund. There is more to it. When I was heading USF Pakistan there was a GSM operator who completed hardly 25% roll-out in one year, although the contract stipulated 100% during that time. Later when the floods came in that area he tried to claim damages! My point is some of the slow disbursement is also due to causes with GSMA’s own members.

I fully agree with GSMA that the administrations must also come out clearly as to what they have in store, how much are the inflows and how much has been allocated. Transparency helps all sides and above all, holds oneself accountable!

Political Interferences

The Findings speak of many cases where political interventions affected the performance and quotes examples of Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan. Being a Pakistani myself I can agree with that too. The Fund was indeed working smoothly and the USF Board met every six weeks to review and deliberate on the projects and take appropriate decisions. But then the Prime Minister took over the chairmanship of the Board and from there it was downhill. It took ten months just for the first Board meeting to take place – extensively damaging the USF by delaying decisions that affected the ongoing, as well as new, projects. Same trend continued. However that cannot be cited as an argument against USFs due to two reasons. First because at that time nothing was working in Pakistan – be it ICT, Governance, Electricity, Petroleum, Gas, Railways, Airlines, the list goes on. Therefore any alternative approach wouldn’t have worked either. In fact even in such worst conditions, thanks to the robust USF model, funds could not be misused. Secondly USF in Pakistan is registered as a Company and the company-law allows its Board of Directors to call the Board Meeting without waiting for its Chairman. The Industry (whom GSMA represents – at least partly) is well represented on the Pakistan USF Board. They could have easily put some pressure by holding at least one meeting without the PM. I am sure that the situation in Brazil and Indonesia must have similarities. That is why I say that blaming USF is unfair.

Alternative solutions

GSMA findings quote Finland and Bangladesh as good  examples of alternative solutions – but both are irrelevant. Firstly to quote a developed country like Finland as an example makes one wonder if GSMA is even aware of the issues and challenges in the developing countries. Secondly Bangladesh is uniquely different. It is flat and very thickly populated (above 1,000 persons per square km). Consequently with relatively little infrastructure 100% connectivity was achieved which Grameen wisely utilised by creating privately owned Computer Information Centers (CICs) mostly with one computer and EDGE connection – not broadband. But compare that with a place like Balochistan province of Pakistan (more than twice the area of Bangladesh) with a population density of around 50. Try providing connectivity to all without financial incentives!

It appears that GSMA believes that the operators will indeed extend service to unserved areas without financial incentives. Well I can say with authority derived from personal experience that in most such areas the operators are unwilling to do so even WITH financial incentives.

The findings of GSMA Report speak of anectodal evidence to show that improved accessibility, coverage and service quality can be accomplished by alternative solutions, such as making those part of license obligations of the operators. But there are several examples where this method was tried and did not work. Like in Tanzania. Peter Ulanga, head of Tanzanian USF told me that from 1994 to 2005 Tanzania tried to provide services to rural areas through license obligations, and that too against a one-time license fee of a measly US$ ONE million. But still the operators always looked for caveats and the objectives could not be achieved. Then from 2005 to 2009, there were neither obligations nor levies in Tanzania. Nothing happened.

Another alternative approach that GSMA supports is the “pay or play” model, where the operators can choose if they want to provide services in non-lucrative areas on their own or pay into the Fund. Several countries have tried and given up that model, most recently Thailand dropped it just a few months back. It doesn’t work and creates too many issues and disputes. I don’t understand why GSMA is advocating a tested and discarded model.

What should GSMA be doing

USF is like democracy – its not the best system, but nothing else has proven to work better. Therefore instead of soliciting closing of USFs in developing countries, who are grappling with the challenge of connecting their citizens for inclusive growth, GSMA should try to help. Help by offering technical and managerial assistance in improving legal frameworks and structures, and by providing know-how for training and education, eg. via broadband access points. GSMA should also try to coax its member telcos to prevail against negative political interferences.

In short, GSMA should help, rather than strangulate, the well-intentioned USFs.

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!