The military-run Special Communication Organization (SCO) has warned that delaying the execution of the Pak-China Optic Fiber Cable (OFC) Phase-II project will result in an escalation of costs and other associated complications.
The scope of the project that is under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and is worth around Rs 38 billion is the extension of the OFC network to Karachi and Gwadar along CPEC routes and the establishment of a landing station at Gwadar. Its total cost was estimated to be $236.97 million (Rs 37.91 billion), with a completion time of four years and a total network length of 7990 km.
The project was approved by the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) on 21 January 2021 and a loan application is under process with the Chinese side for the provision of 85 percent of its cost.
The government has not allocated any funds during the current fiscal year for the undertaking of pre-implementation formalities of the project such as the hiring of consultancy services, surveys, and tendering, etc.
The objectives of the project are:
- to provide an alternate path for international connectivity through Pakistan’s northern border with China;
- to provide continuous and uninterrupted connectivity between the country’s northern and southern borders by establishing multiple rings for secure and uninterrupted communication;
- to provide an alternate route from Rawalpindi to Gwadar and Karachi along the CPEC for the provision of a backbone media and ICT facilities all along the trade corridor routes besides meeting the communication requirements of the security forces employed for the protection of the sensitive trade route;
- to provide a linkage at Gwadar and Karachi with the international submarine optical fiber cable systems by establishing a Landing Station at Gwadar and Karachi;
- for it to become an international gateway route for voice/data traffic by providing connectivity between China and the Central Asian states with the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and beyond, and also linking the neighboring countries through direct connectivity. The envisaged network will transform Pakistan into a Digital Gateway Hub of regional connectivity through the establishment of the IPX (Carrier Exchange).
It was also envisaged as an alternative path for international connectivity that will be established as a result of this project, this ensuring continuous and uninterrupted global communication.
Another main benefit is that the OFC will pass through remote and unserved areas. It will also facilitate the provision of high-speed broadband to the local population and allow them to access tele-health, online education, and other public and e-business services at their premises. International transit internet traffic will also pass through the OFC and earn foreign exchange to contribute towards economic growth. This will, in turn, open up new business vistas and job opportunities in the country.
The Ministry of Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Central Development Working Party (CDWP) had recommended it with certain directions on 2 December 2020. Phase-I of the OFC project was inaugurated on 13 July 2018. The project is an 820 km long Optical Fibre Cable link between Rawalpindi and the Khunjerab Pass on the Pakistan-China border.
The SCO has enlisted several challenges to its operation obligations, including funding/budgetary allocation for the Pak-China OFC Phase-II and the approval of the NGMS Phase-3 (revised) by the CDWP for growth in a competitive environment. It stated that the provision of services in Mainland-Sec 40 of the Pakistan Telecommunication Re-organization Act (PTRA), 1996, does not bar the SCO’s operation in mainland Pakistan, especially in Balochistan and the former FATA.
The SCO was developed under the Ministry of Defence with the charter of the T&T department and was later transferred to the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication.
The organization is working under Section 40 of the PTRA, 1996, which provides the SCO exclusivity in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. It also possesses a telecom infrastructure provider license for mainland Pakistan, and its revenue target for 2020-21 was Rs 5.094 billion as compared to Rs 4.960 billion in 2019-20.