The upcoming mobile spectrum auction, whose revised schedule is yet to be announced by the PTA, is of great significance for mobile network operators as well as their large subscriber base. With the rollout of data-enabled services on 3G networks, telecom experts believe that a market for high-speed mobile broadband would be established, one that would eliminate the inherent deficiencies of fixed broadband.
With regards to mobile broadband, a scenario is portrayed by excited telecom professionals wherein the 3G operators would lay down the infotainment highway, carpeted with interactive VAS, to be driven on by the customers via their smartphones & internet-enabled feature phones. The mileage would, naturally, depend on the customers interests and refuelling capacity! It has been observed that smartphones, owing to their interactive user interfaces & versatile online platforms, have intensified the mobile broadband uptake in 3G markets. Gartner Inc., a technology research company, estimates that one in every five mobile phones sold worldwide in 2011 was a smartphone.
Global smartphone shipments were above 450 million in 2011, and are expected to reach one billion in 2016. Though smartphones adoption rates are soaring in the developed markets, the future growth in smartphone volumes is expected to be driven by the emerging markets. International Data Corp, a Massachusetts-based market intelligence firm, expects China to overtake US as the worlds largest smartphone market in 2012, in terms of annual shipments, as low-priced models spur demand there. This brings us back to the Pakistani market where varying estimates converge between five to six million smartphone users. A rather bullish estimate is cast by Ericsson Pakistan which anticipates some 50 million smartphone users in Pakistan by 2016, accounting for 70 percent of operator revenues. It could, however, be misleading to equate the potential mobile broadband uptake entirely with the incidence of smartphone users in Pakistan. The cue might actually lie in the current mobile internet usage, which is reportedly growing despite high tariffs and laggard speeds on GPRS/EDGE networks. According to PTA Chairman, mobile internet users crossed 15 million in June 2011, just four million shy of PC internet users. Telenor Pakistan, arguably the dominant player in mobile internet services, shared with BR Research that every fourth Telenor customer is a mobile internet user. High adoption rate is found in the 18-26 age, cohort and significantly higher data consumption is witnessed among business users who are mostly aged 30 and above. Rural and semi-urban areas in the North are reported to have surprisingly high usage. Interestingly, just three percent of total handsets on Telenors network are smartphones, when over a quarter of its customers have been mobile internet users. This possibly means that the feature phones are at work here, which are not smartphones but have additional functions over dumb phones, including internet settings. This could imply that the barriers to smartphone adoption may not really hold back the mobile broadband uptake, because a feature phone would suffice to access high-speed internet. However, the appeal of a smartphone - which is capable to communicate with platforms like Android Market, Apple Store, and Blackberry App World, along with a plethora of third-party mobile applications - cannot be matched. Besides handset functionality, the telecom leaders in their interactions with BR Research have cited two other decisive factors for the growth in mobile broadband users. These are the development of local language content and creative mobile applications, and pricing of the data services as per needs of various segments. There is a strong case for a large-scale mobile broadband adoption in Pakistan given the current data consumption trends. A high penetration of mobile broadband can go much beyond mobile entertainment, social networking, and business usage. It will augur well for areas, like education, healthcare and governance that are in dire need to be turned around for Pakistans socioeconomic progress.