Efforts Underway To Give Lease of Life To Wireless Operators in Pakistan

In order to protect million dollar investments, jobs and the customers’ money, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has come up with financially-viable and technological compatible measures for wireless telephony operators which could give a lease of life to these companies.

Wireless Local Loop (WLL) technologies, which used to be popular in various far-flung areas and mountainous regions, have failed to sustain their businesses in urban and rural areas in the face of increasing competition with mobile phone companies, which have not only penetrated with their services in most parts of the country gradually but also grabbed the share of WLL sector.

Hence, the subscriber base of WLL has not only remained stagnant but on the decline for the past many years despite the introduction of reduced calls packages for customers.

WLL Subscribers Vs Cellular Phone Subscribers  

According to PTA data, WLL services commenced in 2004 during the time when the fixed telephony sector was the biggest in terms of connections and sector-wise growth. The WLL sector was set up to tap in areas where landline services could not be provided due to their location and economic non-viability.  In parallel, mobile phone services were introduced with a couple of operators but their services were too costly at the time.

The subscribers base stood at 264,828 million in 2015 June which rose to its peak with 3.1 million subscribers by end of 2013-June, backed by operators such as PTCL, Wateen, WorldCall and TeleCard.  Unfortunately, the WLL sector rapidly lost its ground and lost subscribers, along with the closure of services by various operators. The subscriber base now stands at 375, 653 at the end of 2016.

On the other hand, the cellular sector gradually expanded its services and network in the same period with the arrival of new operators in subsequent years. Their subscriber base stood at 12.7 million by June 2005 which surged to 139 million by end of 2016.

PTA initiated consultation with stakeholders last year in August with the aim to bring stability in the WLL sector under its licensing limits and few allowances which should not hurt the interests of the cellular sector.

Short-Term Measures for WLL Operators

PTA has updated its Draft Framework on Regulatory Remedies and Solution for Service Provision by WLL operators, which comprised of suggested solutions for short-term and long-term basis, commercial and technical relief to WLL operators and concerns of competitors mainly mobile phone operators.

  1. WLL should be allowed the use of handheld devices, however no data connection will be provided without associating it with the corresponding Mobile Directory Number (MDN) though BVS in order to maintain PTA’s numbering plan and address security concerns. The WLL operators shall continue to follow Determination on Implementation of Limited Mobility.
  2. The customers shall be allowed to use their WLL connections with full mobility within the licensed region. In no circumstances inter-region mobility will be allowed. However, the licensee shall pay certain costs for availing such mobility.

Long Term Measures for WLL Operators

  1. Long term measures will include the review of the existing Licensing Framework in accordance with the current market state and the latest trends in telecommunication service provisions. The new licensing regime may propose unification of licenses thus providing an opportunity for WLL operators to re-define their business strategies.
  2. Spectrum trading and sharing frameworks are also being prepared, enabling the wireless operators to increase spectrum efficiency resulting in provision of high quality services at competitive prices. The mutual agreements/arrangements between the WLL operators will provide a lifeline to ailing industry.

Global Trend in WLL Sector

Globally, the WLL sector encountered stiff competition not within the sector but against the cellular sector due to advanced technology, huge investment and faster penetration in the consumer market.

Alternatively protecting investor and consumer interests, regulatory watchdogs of different countries have taken measures to revive the sector and utilize the availability of infrastructure and spectrum for the country.

In India, the Indian Basic Service Operators (BSO) initially offered limited mobility WLL service in their coverage area. However, licenses were offered later on, with unified licensing and additional payment in line with costs of the mobile spectrum.

In Bangladesh, Broadband Wireless Access (BWA) licenses were issued for establishing broadband networks using WiMAX technology. The operators and end-users were allowed to use their equipment in fixed locations, in a nomadic manner or with a fully mobile capability, by choice.

In UK, OFCOM issued 15 regional FWA licenses to UK Broadband which was then converted into a single nationwide license with restriction on power limits and use of fixed wireless terminal. After detailed consultation with stakeholders these two restrictions were relaxed and operators were allowed to provide services using mobile devices without any additional cost.

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