The public-private collaborative approach is supporting Pakistan’s progress towards digitalization but more needs to be done to connect close to 50 percent offline population with high-speed internet.

This was the crux of the discussion by guest speaker Aamir Ibrahim, the CEO of Jazz, during the session ‘Pakistan’s Digital Outlook’ that was hosted as part of a larger roundtable called ‘Realizing the Digital Pakistan Milestone’ by the GSMA in Barcelona, Spain.

Its participants included Julian Gorman, the Head of APAC GSMA, and representatives of the local telecom industry.

Ibrahim highlighted the challenges presented by frontier markets like Pakistan, and stated that previous coordinated efforts had turned challenges into success.

He said, “A united front is necessary to take on industry challenges. A recent example is the Rs. 0.75 voice tax on mobile calls, which was implemented without the industry stakeholders’ prior consultation”.

The CEO further added, “Apart from being ‘anti-poor’, this tax is not implementable because Pakistan is a predominantly prepaid market, where millions enjoy low-cost voice and data bundles. The industry voiced its concern over its implementation and I’m glad the Federal Minister of Information Technology and Telecommunications and the Chairman PTA took this issue up with Prime Minister Imran Khan himself”.

“These challenges aren’t unique to Pakistan and the optimistic in me likes to look at things being done right. It’s commendable how the Government has gone about creating the foundations for local mobile manufacturing industry. This move will increase the number of smartphones in use, which currently stands at around 50 percent. When we talk about Digital Pakistan, the biggest barrier to the provision of internet connectivity to the lower-income segments of society remains the affordability of smartphones,” he explained.

Ibrahim revealed, “Last year, we requested PTA to facilitate telecom companies and other third parties, including microcredit providers, in offering smartphones on easy installments to their customers. Again, consultation and a coordinated effort is required in ensuring this idea sees the light of day”.

He elaborated that “while acknowledging the work being done by the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications and the PTA in implementing frameworks for a digitally inclusive Pakistan, the future seems bright because we are going in the right direction. Yet, we need to pick up the pace. Pakistan presents a unique blend of opportunities, especially given our massive youth bulge, and these opportunities need to be realized in time if we are to tackle this state of digital emergency”.

The CEO also raised concerns on two focus areas that require urgent attention so that Pakistan improves its existing digital indicators and avoids being left behind by its regional peers.

“We need to improve the quality of services, especially the provision of high-speed internet and soon new regulations will introduce better service benchmarks at par with global standards. The Government also needs to realize that foreign investors need predictable, fair-level playing fields to commit to long-term investment,” he said.

He said, “Thus, it is important that the upcoming spectrum auction moves away from the historical short-term revenue generation approach and instead focuses on expanding universal broadband for current and future generations.”