Since the introduction of 3G/4G services in 2014, the number of mobile broadband users in Pakistan has grown from a meager 1.3 million to over 75.9 million which constitutes 97% of overall 78 million broadband users in the country, as per the latest stats issued by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).

Number of broadband subscribers in other technologies including DSL, WiMax, HFC, FTTH, EvDO, Fixed 3G/4G/LTE is little over 2 million only.

While Pakistan, like many other countries in the world, is experiencing a lockdown situation to manage the COVID-19 threat, broadband services have enabled us to shift our routine educational, entertainment and work-related activities completely online.

Cellular networks have also been playing a key role in the fight against COVID-19 by raising awareness about precautionary measures, providing telehealth services in collaboration with health institutions, enabling cashless transactions, tracking suspected/vulnerable cases and extending major support to affected communities across the country.

However, with more activities being performed online we have witnessed an increase in data traffic and as per a recent statement by PTA, the internet usage in Pakistan has surged by 15% since the lockdown came into effect.

While it is an encouraging indicator that our existing telecommunication ecosystem has been managing this surge for now and the regulator also suggests that sufficient internet capacity is available to meet the growing demands of the future, this unprecedented surge poses a risk to cellular networks as they are operating under a very low spectrum* and consumer usage patterns have also changed during the lockdown with voice traffic going down and spectrum intensive data traffic going up. (*Spectrum refers to the radio frequencies on which data and information are carried.)

In Pakistan currently the spectrum cumulatively allocated to cellular services is 269.2 MHz only comprising both downlink and uplink under 4 bands to manage the voice and data requirements of over 165 million cellular subscribers. In contrast, Indonesia is catering to the needs of 176 million cellular subscribers with 545 MHz spectrum under 6 bands whereas Myanmar has allocated 353.7 MHz for 67 million subscribers under 5 bands.

At this point when cellular industry is keeping everyone connected and ensuring seamless remote working operations for all other sectors, it is critical to urgently address any risks facing this crucial sector.

With increase in usage, quality of services to the customers can be compromised and might also lead towards capacity issues and connectivity outages, which if occurs will be very challenging to address during the lockdown when mobility of network operations team is also restricted.

Ironically, the cellular sector still has not been granted the status of essential services and reportedly its workers are facing hardships to ensure operational continuity during the lockdown.

Let’s see how different countries are supporting their cellular networks to manage surge in voice and data traffic during this extraordinary situation:

Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) of Saudi Arabia has awarded additional spectrum for mobile service providers to boost the performance of 4G and 5G networks and ensure uninterrupted delivery of ICT services to all users and enterprises across the Kingdom.

Independent Communications Authority of South Africa has released emergency broadband spectrum to meet a spike in internet demand during the lockdown. The additional spectrum aims to ease network congestion, maintain good quality of broadband services, and enable service providers to lower cost of access.

Ireland’s Commission for Communications Regulation has released additional rights of use for radio spectrum on a temporary basis (up to 3 months) to give mobile network operators flexibility to create extra capacity for mobile phone and broadband services. A nominal fee of €100 per license is applicable.

Oman’s The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority has offered additional spectrum especially in the C-band to the licensed companies, to improve the quality of service and mitigate the pressure on the telecommunication networks. Its licensees can also use additional frequency bands without obtaining radio license during this period and to use the planned frequencies required for delivering services or connect the base stations.

The United States Federal Communications Commission has granted temporary additional spectrum to T-Mobile, US Cellular as well as Verizon in order to help meet increased consumer demand for mobile broadband.

The National Communications Authority (NCA) of Ghana has temporarily granted Vodafone and MTN Ghana, the country’s two biggest operators, additional spectrum. The grant covers a three-month period with no extra cost to the operators. Ghana’s communications minister however has appealed to end users to moderate their data usage in order to alleviate the pressure on telecommunications providers.

During these trying times staying connected is more important today than it has ever been, which is why these above-mentioned countries have equipped their cellular networks with additional resources. It is time for local policymakers to also strengthen and provide all required resources, in consultation with industry stakeholders, to cellular sector which is enabling life under quarantine.