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…


Broadband for unserved areas – innovative bidding by USF Pakistan

THE THING THAT INTERESTS OTHER COUNTRIES MOST IN USF PAKISTAN, IS OUR INNOVATIVE BROADBAND PROGRAM! Even this month (Oct. 2011) I will be conducting an ITU sponsored workshop on this topic in Thailand.

Designing the program was rather arduous. Initially we thought we would conduct standard auctions for Broadband too, just like the Rural Telecom Program, where one lowest bidder emerges as the winner and deploys the infrastructure. But ‘the devil lies in the details’. Soon we realized that in case of Broadband for unserved cities and towns, there were a host of other concerns that had to be addressed. We thought:

• If the sole bid-winner is a DSL Operator (likely scenario), how would Broadband get
deployed in areas with no copper cables?
• How would multiple technologies come in to spread Broadband fast?
• With one bidder winning, how would there be competition?
• What if the infrastructure was built but there were no takers in those towns?
• It would be necessary to create awareness among people of these areas. But how?
• What if Broadband tariffs (perceived high), prove to be an insurmountable
• How would those citizens, who cannot afford their own PCs, be served?
• Educated youth are the most important segment for broadband. What approach to adopt that Broadband is introduced in educational institutions of unserved towns?

In other words some innovations had to be brought into the standard bidding process. A lot of consultations with stakeholders and a lot of brain storming sessions of our team (mainly on weekends) resulted in the present Broadband bidding process.

I explain the major innovations – with the rationale of each – that differentiate the process.

First, bidders other than the lowest are also allowed to win (Multiple Winners), albeit only by matching the lowest bid. This makes it possible for multiple technologies (wired and wireless) to deliver Broadband while also generating competition!

Second, the higher one-third of the bidders get thrown out immediately – only the lower two-thirds remain in the race. This is because when you allow multiple winners there is less incentive to bid low in the first place. With this, you try to bid low to avoid getting thrown out!

Third innovation is the OBA (Output Based Assistance) nature of bidding. Even normally (except for 20% mobilisation advance) USF subsidy winners are not paid until they have deployed the infrastructure. But in case of Broadband, they are asked to actually bring Broadband subscribers on board before they get paid. This is to compel the subsidy winners to first deploy infrastructure and then make extra efforts to “sell” it to subscribers, for which obviously they have to create awareness and keep tariffs low!

Fourth – the “sold” subscribers, on the basis of which a subsidy winner claims payment, must have been on board for at least 90-days, so that only genuine subscribers are counted.

Fifth – a very comprehensive and robust Technical Audit is put in place that employs multiple measurements to confirm (or reject) the number of subscribers claimed by the subsidy winner.

Subsidy winners are required to set up “Community Broadband Centers” (CBCs), each with at least 5 PCs plus allied equipment to cater for those who cannot afford PCs.

Similarly for each and every Higher Secondary School, College and Library in the project areas, subsidy winners have to set up “Educational Broadband Centers” (EBCs) consisting of 5 PCs in a LAN, training of two teachers plus free Broadband for 12 months. In most educational institutions of small cities either there are no PCs to terminate Broadband on, or there are no budgets to pay the tariffs.

Other than that, all bidding terms are standard USF, ie: open transparent auctions, technology neutral and one-time subsidies.

Starting in April 2009, so far 256 small cities and towns have benefitted from USF funded Broadband, where 897 EBCs, 258 CBCs and nearly 310,000 subscribers are connected to Broadband and the numbers are growing each day.

Three more Broadband projects have been advertised that will add 122 towns, where 492 EBCs, 151 CBCs and 150,000 Broadband subscribers will be connected.

Through separate auctions, backbone for Broadband, ie: Optic Fiber Cables are being laid to connect all 115 yet un-served Tehsils (sub-districts).

So far USF’s Broadband bidding has been fairly successful – at least experts watching us from abroad tell us so, especially when they compare us with most Universal Service Programs in the developing world. But then, ‘one who rests on one’s laurels is obviously wearing those at the wrong place’! So we are not resting and are now working hard to take Broadband to villages also – through our Universal Telecenters program (described in my Blog “ USF Telecenters – The Simple Concept”).

It is our resolve to take Broadband to every corner of Pakistan.

“Corruption in USF”

ONE OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES I face is to convince some of those who matter that it is possible to deal in Billions WITHOUT ANY CORRUPTION. I don’t blame them. Corruption has become so pervasive that if and when it is absent, one tends to disbelieve!

So what does one do? It is said that transparency helps. Ostensibly, transparency ensures that the rationale of everything that you do becomes visible to everyone so that they are able to see that the decisions were arrived at on the basis of laid down rules and parameters – and not on any personal whims or favors. On top of that, making one’s work transparent by itself forces one to act clean. The mere thought that others are able to see, acts as a deterrent.

So at USF (Universal Service Fund) Company we try our utmost to keep things transparent and above board:

  • The set of rules used are the ones available in public domain – the Public Procurement Regulatory Authority (commonly known as PPRA) Rules.
  • Wherever these rules fall short (no set of rules can cover every eventuality), the bidding terms and conditions are elaborated, well in advance. It is considered important that bidders are not confronted with any surprises.
  • All bidding documents (standard terms/conditions, service specifications, any special conditions and even the templates of the contracts to be signed by the winning bidders) are posted on the website from where these are accessible to everyone. However the exact geographical co-ordinates are not posted on the website. These are provided to bidders who register themselves.
  • In almost all cases USF does not specify which technology the Service Provider should use to deliver the desired service (Technology Neutrality). In exceptional cases where some technical specifications must be given, then standards defined by International Telecom Union (ITU) are used.
  • All projects/procurements are advertised in at least 2 prominent national Newspapers – English and Urdu. Additionally the Ads are also placed on own and PPRA websites.
  • All questions received from the bidders – and their given answers – are shared with all registered bidders. Later these are also posted on the website so that everyone knows exactly what was asked and what were the replies given.
  • Bids are accepted, at the announced bid-submission date/time, in presence of all bidders and the major contents of the bids (especially bid-bonds) are checked. This ensures that each one of them knows exactly who is bidding and if any bid is incomplete.
  • Only LOWEST bidders are awarded contracts. Even the Board cannot change that. In case it is already declared that there would be more than one winner, all have to match the lowest bid otherwise they lose out.
  • At the conclusion of every bidding, the bid evaluation summary consisting of bidding process, it’s history and the bidding result is posted on the website for everyone to see.

It doesn’t stop with culmination of the bidding process:

  • After signing of the contract 20% mobilization advance is given to the successful bidder, but only after getting an irrevocable bank guarantee of double the value of the advance.
  • Project time-lines are divided into “milestones” and payments are released only on completion of milestones. To check completion of work at each milestone, Technical Audits are conducted by independent (third party) Technical Auditors, as well as by USF Co. experts.
  • Technical Auditors are appointed in the same transparent manner, through competitive bidding, among technically qualified firms. Records of these biddings are also posted on the website.
  • In case of completed projects, any penalties imposed on account of delays or other lapses, are also posted on the website.

There have been a couple of instances where the failed bidders – actually two – expressed their reservations. One of these was a telecom operator and the project was large. So the bidder was allowed to submit his reservations directly to the Board, who checked and ruled in management’s favor. Both bidders continue to participate and, as always, lose sometimes and win sometimes!

Not to take the credit away from a truly “dream team” of USF Co., the processes in place are such that if ever one of us tries to indulge in any corrupt practice, it would not be possible to hide it. And if one would still try, remember USF Co. is audited every 6 months – 9 Audits so far and not a single audit objection. In any case we would not be spared by the fund contributing telecom companies – keep in mind the cut-throat competition among themselves with billions at stake here. On the contrary, they all seem to have developed complete confidence in USF processes – that these are fair and free of any corruption.