The pandemic has shown us that access to the internet is key in keeping our society functional and that there is an urgent need to bridge the prevalent digital divide.
Almost all indicators point towards this being a long, drawn-out battle against the spread of COVID-19, meaning we are, for now, living in the new normal. And although this new normal has affected businesses, lives and brought the economy to a near standstill, the one thing it has ascertained is that telecom services are essential, especially for the times ahead. From connecting families and communities to ensuring most businesses and educational institutes are kept online, the industry has made it possible to make it through this lockdown.
Nearly all activities in our everyday lives – work, education, entertainment, banking, socializing, shopping etc. – are going online. The internet has also played a crucial role in broadcasting information and data related to COVID-19. Having internet access acts as an enabler and an incentive for people to stay at home, practice social distancing and try to move forward with their lives.
However, access to the internet is still a privilege in Pakistan rather than a essential facility, and there exists a concerning digital divide that exacerbates existing socio-economic inequalities. In a country of more than 200 million inhabitants, around 165 million mobile subscribers exist, but only 47% of these subscribers utilize the benefits offered by mobile broadband; around 90 million Pakistanis own a mobile phone that cannot access the internet.
This data showcases how the internet as a facility is so unevenly distributed in our society. The more impoverished Pakistanis are not even part of the digital transformation. And the pandemic has brought this fact to light.
As the nationwide lockdown forced educational institutes to conduct classes online, there was growing dissent, especially from students belonging to rural or remote areas, against this move. Most were against being taught on video streaming software, as they lacked the high-speed internet, while some argued that this move would drain their pockets as a lot of data is required to conduct video calls. Experts from various areas highlighted how online classes seemed discriminatory against the students living in the rural areas of Pakistan.
For a country already grappling with the lows of the prevalent digital divide, the pandemic has brought in another matter to address. As the economy suffers, unemployment becomes rampant and income deductions become a norm, the average person finds it increasingly difficult to recharge their mobile balance. Mobile operators are also reporting a decline in balance recharge in comparison to the same period last year.
Although the digital divide is a problem requiring long-term strategic intervention by the state, investment, time and respite to the masses should be immediate, since mobile communications, especially mobile broadband, are essential services in this digital era.
Presently, the telecom industry in Pakistan is amongst the highest taxed in the world, as per the Sustainable Development Policy Institute. In addition to the high tax burden on mobile operators, there are a number of consumer taxes levied on mobile services, which significantly increase the cost of ownership of a basic handset and connection.
For starters, an amendment to the current taxation policy is required on an urgent basis to counter the effects of the pandemic on mobile phone usage. In foresight, the government should abolish advance withholding tax charged from all subscribers, and harmonize GST on voice, while abolishing it altogether on the usage of data services to promote internet usage and offer relief to the destitute.
As per industry experts, abolishing data tax will not only offer immediate benefits to the users, but in the long-term, this move will positively impact the digital ecosystem. These tax reductions will also decrease the burden on low-income mobile subscribers.
Moving forward, the government should also consider regulatory and policy changes, making it easier for mobile operators to expand mobile broadband access to remote regions.
Last, but not least, serious considerations ought to be made in terms of the affordability and accessibility of smartphones. Feature phones, although affordable, are outdated and their continued use amongst the very poor only hinders their inclusion into a formal digital economy.
The government’s #DigitalPakistan slogan needs a policy and regulatory upheaval if it is to become a reality. Where the COVID-19 outbreak has brought the benefits that digital technologies to light , it has also directed everybody’s attention towards a digital divide that is most likely to grow if preventive measures are not taken.
Digital transformation can only be fully realized if high quality access to communication networks and services is made available at affordable prices for all people and firms no matter who they are or where they live.