Delays hang over Pakistan 3G lifeline

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s cash-strapped government has promised to sell 3G lifeline mobile telephone licenses to raise revenue, match regional rivals and drive prosperity, but the process has been beset by delays.

Even Afghanistan, Pakistan’s far less developed western neighbor with a weaker economy and more fragile state, has the technology.


Alt Text: Illustration depicting a mobile network signal with a clock showing delay.
Image by Juanma_Martin from Pixabay

But Pakistani consumers struggle to transfer data by phone, video streaming is often interrupted — although technically YouTube is banned — and video calls problematic.

Two months after the new government took office, there is little sign that the process will start soon.

Pakistan’s state minister for information technology Anusha Rehman told AFP that the auction alone could take six to eight months.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, elected for a historic third term in May, faces the daunting challenge of bringing down an 8.8 per cent budget deficit, yet his first budget was conservative.

Finance Minister Ishaq Dar sought to fend off some criticism about the lack of tax reform by saying that a 3G auction would fetch a “considerable amount of foreign exchange”.

Cheap mobile phone telephony took Pakistan by storm in the early 2000s and according to the PTA there are more than 122 million mobile phone subscribers — or 68.6 per cent of the population.

But delays are not the only problem.

“The previous government could not auction 3G licenses because it wanted to bypass the standard tendering practices,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

“There was infighting within the PTA over the auctioning of licenses as the previous government wanted to bypass standard procedures and there was resistance by the members who delayed the process,” the official said.

Raza Rabbani, a leading senator from the opposition Pakistan People’s Party, has criticized the inclusion of 3G license sale proceeds in the first budget of the Sharif government.

“These are illusionary figures. There is nothing concrete,” he told AFP.

Of the five mobile phone companies in Pakistan, only Oslo-based Telenor has so far expressed public interest in acquiring a 3G license, saying it could be operationally ready at the end of 2013.


He said the technology would drive prosperity and that increasing Internet penetration by just 10 per cent would raise GDP by 1.5-1.6 per cent.

“It is a paradigm shift from voice to data that will open many doors for GSM operators in the country to serve their customers through innovative avenues,” the official said.

Shahzad Ahmad, country director of Bytes for All, an independent technology think tank, says Pakistan should forget 3G and move directly to more advance 4G LTE bands.

But he also called for clean bidding.

“So far there is no transparency in the process, nobody knows how many licenses are going to be auctioned and to whom?” he added.

Ahmad said that 4G technology will speed up telecommunication in Pakistan and create new jobs in online media content creation.

Consumers seem unfazed, saying they already have to pay more than 40 per cent taxes and service charges on recharges and calls.

I recharge a 100 rupee card and get only 60 rupees credit. The rest all goes into taxes, duties and service charges,” construction worker Mohammad Afzal, 35, told AFP.

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