5G mobile networks hold great promise and potential to boost digital development in Pakistan, but delays in its deployment would delay a revolutionary leap in capacity from 4G to 5G, says the World Bank (WB).
The WB, in its latest report, “[email protected]: Shaping The Future”, released on Monday states that delays in the issuance of 3G and 4G licenses, which was eventually completed in 2014, had prevented telecom companies from building out and upgrading their networks to carry data services. Going forward, similar delays in the deployment of 5G networks would delay a revolutionary leap in capacity from 4G to 5G that, if affordable, could prepare a robust foundation for a digital economy.
The report states that regulatory bottlenecks have hampered ICT sector development and subsequently digital development while the main regulatory constraint to an otherwise competitive telecoms market relates to the issuance of mobile internet licenses.
Pakistan has already derived some of the benefits from digitization, but the scope for more growth still remains. Demand for access to the internet has increased rapidly, from 6 million internet subscribers in 2013 to an estimated 48 million in 2017.
Pakistan is already the third-largest country providing workers to global online freelancing platforms, generating an estimated US$1 billion in export revenue in 2016.
Pakistan is also an increasingly attractive “knowledge process outsourcing/business process outsourcing” destination, and the federal and provincial governments in Punjab and KP are actively supporting entrepreneurship through incubation programs. However, broadband and mobile penetration (basic and data/internet-enabled mobile phones) in Pakistan remains relatively low.
Relative to its neighbors, the country also ranks low on most of the key enablers of a digital economy: infrastructure, affordability, consumer readiness and content. Crucially, there remains scope for improvement with respect to the inclusiveness of digitally driven growth: improvements to employment have been concentrated among the relatively fewer higher-skilled workers in the country and the digital divide between men and women in Pakistan is among the highest in the world.
The report further states that Digital technology has been a key driver of productivity improvements in recent decades. Going forward, 5G mobile networks hold great promise as a booster of digital development in Pakistan. These networks rely on the national fiber optic network owned by the state operator, Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL).
The national fiber optic network is the main transmission network and links to the international terrestrial and submarine networks. Improvements in unrestricted access to PTCL’s network would benefit the private operators.
Similarly, a further network expansion and quality improvements would improve mobile broadband access and could ensure access in underserved and unserved areas. Digital development should further come with safeguards including national cyber-security and personal data privacy.
At the same time, providing an enabling environment for a competitive and open market for telecom and digital players, and digital skills for potential employees is critical to ensuring the meaningful uptake of digital solutions.