PTA Continues its Quest of 3G in Pakistan

pakistan_cell_phone_userPakistan; a simple nation of 170 million and a bit more, completed a decade of telecommunication change last year.

From the days of landlines and costly cellular services, we are now apparently a mass of 100 million mobile users, connected to our friends, family and the wider world through the power of 5 operators. However, stagnation has begun to infect this process of change as the focus remains limited to the primary purpose of mobile communication: voice, with a hefty sprinkling of SMS.

Over the last few years, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has periodically released statements on the introduction of 3G services within the country. Their initiative towards this upgrade in technology is two-pronged: maintaining parity with the options that are available internationally and enhancing the investment into the telecommunication sector of the country. While the goals are admirable, the PTA’s blind chase for short-term benefit continues to push away the mobile operators from any commitment on this project.

3G represents a spectrum allowing for higher speeds of data transmission. On the international front, Hutchison Telecom was synonymous with the technology at the turn of the century, creating the operator 3, with the key facet of video calling. With the advent of mobile internet and smartphones, the need for quick access to information and the ability to use multimedia on devices prompted for further adoption of this technology.

In the first instance for Pakistan, the multi-million dollar license fees that were planned by the PTA have not won them any support from the industry till date. After all, each operator is a business entity that needs to provide a return to its stakeholders on the investment, and PTA’s vision does not have the backing of any market analysis at this stage.

A quick scan over the alleged 100 million mobile subscribers reveals the large hindering blocks to any immediate 3G implementation in the country. Only 4% or so are GPRS/EDGE users; that means approximate 4 to 5 million mobile users have access to internet over their devices. This would include the Blackberry service users, who form only a speck in the entire mobile subscriber base. However, the push towards more incorporation of data services has shown an upward trend in the last year or so, with the service operators keen on hooking more users to internet applications and services.

But there is a large gap to cover and it will take time. A major chunk of mobile users are not as tech-savvy or resourceful to purchase and utilize the added services on offer. This has prompted mobile operators to customize their extra services to SMS usage, instead of pure data or internet sessions, and the consistent reluctance to sign up for 3G investment, which is unlikely to be widely adopted by the consumer.

With a new entrant to Pakistan’s cellular market extremely unlikely for 3G, the PTA should look into prompting for an improvement to current services, and encouraging operators to increase the bandwidth and coverage of current data services, allowing for better speeds and more consumer access. Jumping stones simply to show the world that we are as advanced as the rest is of no interest to any business entity, least of all, mobile operators.

Time the PTA came out of their glass dome and understood that with a 40% poverty rate, the number of G is far from the mind of the average consumer at this stage.