Rapid 3G Growth: Not Just the Towers, We Need a Complete Ecosystem!

Almost six months have passed since the launch of 3G services in Pakistan and analysts are already showing their displeasure about 3G uptake in the country. They believe that masses have rejected the the next-gen mobile internet technology and that it was really not worth it.

These analysts are probably right to an extent because 3G services offered by telcos and the coverage is too little, but at the same time we need to evaluate if all the high hopes and expectations that were associated with 3G were rational or note.

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority and Ministry of IT and Telecom – at the time of 3G auction – left no stone un-turned to attribute 3G as an ultimate solution for every single problem that exists in our society. They bragged so hard that they forgot to tell us that all these benefits of 3G will be slow and gradual. So gradual that it may take us years to realize the dreams that PTA showed us before the auction.

What PTA and MoIT also forgot to tell the public was the fact that its not only the 3G network that will change our social style, they even didn’t tell us that there is a lot more than just the 3G network that we may need to transition to next era of technological advancements.

One can’t criticize PTA for telling us half truths because they were acting like sales agency, and this is exactly how things are sold.

But moving forward, let’s evaluate on how well are we going along with the 3G adoption rate, and things that we need to do in addition to just erecting 3G enabled cell sites.

Adoption Rate

Its not a hidden fact now that 3G adoption rate isn’t very fascinating so far. Its discouraging actually. But considering other innovations, this slow penetration is regarded as a natural process and that’s exactly how other communication technologies were welcomed in this country. Be it the landline phones or then cellular services, or broadband for that matter, every new technology took its due time to penetrate.

Network deployments take time. Today 3G networks are better than what we had two months ago, and similarly they will only get better with each passing month. Currently you might not get blanket 3G coverage in whole of your city, especially if you are not in Islamabad, which leaves you to enjoy 3G services only where its available. Meaning that customers are leveraging 3G technologies but they haven’t given up their old-means of mobile internet such as PTCL EVO.

In such situations, when service is either not smooth or if its unreliable, adoption rate is bound to remain low. But this will change when we will have better 3G coverage with in-door penetration throughout the cities. That will be the time when a common man will be able to better rely on 3G technology for all their internet needs.

With blanket 3G coverage users will be more confident about availability of service and hence they will easily rely on Viber, Skype etc whenever and where-ever they need it. Such usage patterns and confidence levels will increase adoption rate exponentially. But again, this moment will take time to come.

Keeping in view the past record of Pakistani nation, 3G early adopters are still in higher proportions when compared to rest of the technologies. Take example of cellular subscribers, which were only 5 million in 2004 i.e. after 13 years of service launch in Pakistan. Presently, we are more adoptive to technological changes and this clearly hints that number of 3G users will get only better with time.

Lack of 3G Readiness on Telcos Part

Despite telcos settlement with Pakistan Telecommunication Authority – according to which regulator had agreed to issue four 3G licenses instead of three meaning that all operators were to get a 3G license – some telcos were not fully prepared to launch 3G and this is probably why we are today seeing slow rollouts.

Mobilink and Zong clearly witnessed challenges in rolling out 3G networks, but the good thing is that they are getting better now.

There’s no denying in the fact that some telcos were under prepared for the launch of 3G and this resulted into slow network rollouts and resultantly the slow adoption of 3G.

First Time Internet Users are Not Targeted Yet!

Cellular companies are clearly not targeting 3G for first time internet users yet, the real and ultimate beneficiary of 3G technology. A CMO of a cellular company, with request to not to name him, told ProPakistani that this is part of his company’s strategy to make 3G service available to potential users first who are more adoptive and offer better returns on investment. According to him, with selected network deployments during early stages, operators are eyeing high-demand user base only. “But this will change with time”, he said.

Do you remember those early days, when we used to have limited cellular connectivity in rural areas? Its not the same anymore. Similarly 3G will reach those far-flung areas too but in due time.

This country has millions and millions of heads who can be potential 3G customers. Not to mention, a huge number of cellular customers reside in rural areas and when telcos will start offering 3G services to those first time internet users, this whole nation will turn the global internet market upside down.

Just imagine that Pakistan ranks as 8th largest market in the world for cellular subscribers with over 140 million customers. To be on safer side, if we estimate that only half of 140 million cellular subscribers are unique active subscribers then 70 million strong base can potentially join internet in next few years, which means that we can rank in top 5 internet markets in the world in just few years from now.

Again, as mentioned before, all of this will take time and one has to trust the technology that flows like water and it maps its tracks itself, you just have to give it the chance and time.

Need for Ecosystem

Sohaib Sheikh, a senior telecom analyst, believes that 3G network isn’t the only thing that we need for masses to adopt 3G. “Its the whole ecosystem that we will need to have in place for quick and early transition of 2G users to 3G environment”, said Mr. Sheikh.

According to Sohaib Sheikh, local content, devices, infrastructure, e-commerce, cyber laws and internet freedom are few of the elements that Pakistan needs for progressive 3G uptake.

Let’s take the example of local content; a common internet user in Pakistan has nothing much to do when connected to internet. Emails, Facebook, some news website and that’s all what is available to him/her when connected to internet.

For how long one can read New York Times or Buzzfeed? Naturally we need local content that could attract us more and keep us glued to the internet.

And by local content, we don’t mean the comics and image websites only, or those useless copied news websites, we actually mean local apps, smartphone apps that allow us to register complaints with IESCO, or app that will let us pay our internet bill, or an app that should let us view/share/append the syllabus of our school going kids. This is what we need in addition to what we already have right now.

I must add here that building an ecosystem is where Government will have to step in and play a role, they must come up with better vision of how they want to see this nation in five or ten years from now.

E-payment gateway is one small thing (that PTA had planned in 2009 but we still don’t have it) that can enable our developers and freelancers to accept payments via internet. Paypal seems to be a distant reality now considering that no one in our government, PSEB, PASHA or anyone else has been able to convince the payment processing giant to offer its services in Pakistan.

E-Commerce industry without Paypal is like playing cricket without a bat. Similarly considering that only 3G – without epayment solutions – will revolutionize the e-commerce industry is simply an over-statement.

We also need a cyber-law, given that tens of millions of new users will be joining internet which is not regulated yet. I am sure this may amaze our foreign friends but there is no law in place to govern such massive cyber population of Pakistan. This has to change as well.

If government hasn’t done anything in the past, this is the time to start working on the ecosystem, or it will be too late and 3G will only become a place where our youth will come to watch adult content.

Awareness Campaigns

We recently did a dedicated story on this topic and found that telcos are advertising their 3G services very vaguely. Their campaigns are misdirected and that the real message is either too confusing or its bundled with countless other services. Telcos will have to change this approach to bring forward simple to understand campaigns that could trigger the masses for action.

Take the example of Idea Cellular India, they advertised the technology wisely and kept the basic benefits in mind, or like marketing intellects say, ‘they built the product before building the brand’.

Now let’s watch below Telenor’s 3G ad for their social bundle, in which models are pointlessly dancing with almost no message at all:

Now check below TVCs from Idea Mobile and do a comparison yourself.

3G Enabled Devices

Currently 3G enabled devices in Pakistan account for under 10 percent of total handsets running in the country. There is a dire need for introduction of reasonably performing low-cost 3G enabled handsets in the market.

Ufone has done a good job with the launch of Ufone U5, a 3G enabled device with price tag of Rs. 5,999. Lenvo has promised the launch of a similar price-tagged device in coming months, but more such smartphones should surface in local market. Its a rich market, where there is a huge demand in the low-priced segment that should be tapped by phone makers.

Conclusion

Telecom operators need to do better with 3G deployments. Network coverage is bettering with time and from what telcos have done in just four month, it appears that 3G rollout obligations will be met a lot earlier than what PTA had specified in the 3G information memorandum.

But telecom operators are not the only ones to get the 3G momentum going. Its us, the people, the government, private sector, developers, freelancers, publishers, phone makers who are responsible for 3G uptake. We all have to play our roles to truly realize the benefits of 3G.

Tech reporter with over 10 years of experience, founder of ProPakistani.PK