Zhou Rong: What do 3G, 4G services mean to far-flung areas of Pakistan?

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Zhou Rong: What do 3G, 4G services mean to far-flung areas of Pakistan?

2020-07-21

By: Zhou Rong    Source: China Economic Net    Published: 2020-07-20


BEIJING, July 20 (China Economic Net) - Pakistani Federal Minister for Information Technology and Telecommunication Syed Aminul Haque has announced that 3G and 4G services will be provided soon to far-flung areas of Balochistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan.


Right now the government of Pakistan was committed to promoting the country’s technological capacity to develop a globally competitive IT sector and industry. As the minister put it, the project would meet the objective of providing infrastructure in order to ensure access and connectivity for people, provide broadband services to the locals, improve their life standard, create job opportunities, empower women and so on.


Some people might not understand why the project may help Pakistani women a lot. We know that the phenomenon of male superiority still exists in Pakistan. Although there have been a large number of female military people, female medical workers, female journalists, female judicial workers, female scholars, and policewomen in Pakistan, women are still not encouraged to appear in public places.


However, online work driven by 3G and 4G can prevent women from contacting people face to face in public. Relatively speaking, for Pakistan, women’s participation in online employment is and will be more acceptable. The federal government now decided to subsidy Rs 650 million, and about two million people may benefit from it. To a certain degree, it has successfully removed pay-wall restriction on coverage of COVID-19.


But popularizing 3G and 4G in Pakistan has never been an easy job. Take online class as an example. On March 13, Pakistan announced the closure of all educational institutions following the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. The federal and provincial governments encouraged online classes long ago, but it was very difficult to implement. Many areas in Balochistan are not equipped with fiber optic lines. Nine out of 32 districts are completely without mobile internet services, as the internet was shut down due to security reasons. Since then all classrooms have remained shut, prompting a huge crisis in the education sector at all levels. Pakistani authorities have ordered universities to make classes online only to help curb the spread of the virus, but the quality of education to certain degree declined.


Online classes are nothing without internet. If the government is concerned about the future of Pakistan’s education, it has to restore the internet in rural areas. Mobile internet services were shut down in the tribal region. It’s not only the students that are suffering due to a lack of mobile internet services in former FATA. There are many expats living in the Middle East. They need to communicate with their families and wire money. In remote areas, the Internet signal is poor as the service is available intermittently, and the network speed is slow. Therefore, even if an online classroom is open, the effect will be interfered by technical problems.


Many e-commerce businesses are being affected across Pakistan. It has economic impacts as well. To embrace technology uncritically means not to ignore the fact that the access to these technologies is still a luxury for many and provision of the internet is very low in countries such as Pakistan.


According to Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)’s Inclusive Internet Index 2020, Pakistan fell into the last quartile of countries, ranking 76th out of 100 countries (24th out of 26 Asian countries). Besides a low level of digital literacy and poor quality networks, the country also scored poorly in the affordability indicators. Internet access in Pakistan stands at around 35 percent, with 78 million broadband and 76 million mobile internet (3/4G) connections.


“Around 35 percent of Pakistan lacks internet infrastructure,” Federal Minister for IT and Telecommunication Syed Amin Ul Haque said, “There is an urban and rural divide. Most private companies invest in urban towns for commercial reasons and benefits. They refrain from investing in rural and far-flung areas. Billions and billions are needed to end this digital divide.”


Around 65 percent of Pakistanis live in rural areas. From Balochistan to Sindh and from the former FATA to Gilgit, students living in rural areas complain about the lack of access to internet and online classes. It is impossible for rural students to take online classes from their hometown. During this pandemic, some of them have tried to attend many Zoom meetings but failed. The government should restore mobile internet services in tribal areas or provide broadband facilities.


Right now, a majority of students is from working-class families. Despite being in the city, they either lack gadgets or can’t afford to have costly internet packages. Like students, many teachers also disagree with the idea of online classes. And there are unserved and under-served areas in Pakistan. The IT infrastructures have to be uplifted. The Pakistani government is trying its best.


Pakistani President Alvi said the future highway to success was all about information gathering based upon internet and making it accessible for people. He mentioned that the new life pattern during the coronavirus pandemic demanded digitalized systems in areas particularly trade, commerce, education and health. The President said e-commerce and e-trade could prove a stimulus towards expansion of economy due to fast financial transactions.


Also, he said, software being top of the value-addition chain could prove as effective marketing tool for products and the country’s 30 percent improvement in software development scenario. He said the digital information could also eliminate ‘elite capture’ of resources and quoted the book ‘Capital and Ideology’. President Alvi said internet could be best used for improving skilled economy and mentioned that as Pakistan required one million nurses in health sector, online training courses could be a great option instead of brick and mortar education.


So let’s work together. With China’s assistance, it will not take long for Pakistan to popularize 3G and 4G in its rural area, to narrow the gap between urban and rural, and make a very good foundation for Pakistan’s future take off in IT.


The author is a senior fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China (RDCY).