Pakistan is on its way to auction spectrum for next-generation mobile services. If all goes as per the plan, Pakistanis will soon start using high-speed mobile broadband - -most likely 3G services -- on their smartphones.
It is good to see that this government is pushing for a timely auction on its watch. But besides the money aspect, it should also focus on the market aspect post-auction. Simply put, telecom authorities must ensure that users are able to get the most out of mobile broadband. That means, not just a focus on connectivity, but how that connectivity can be useful to individuals, businesses, academia, government, and society in general.
Mobile broadband is said to hold immense promise in e-learning, e-health and e-governance areas. The government will do well to frame "useful connectivity" policies around those areas. In fact, the PTA Chairman had good news on that front in his recent interview with BR Research (published February 3):
"Our regulatory focus will no longer be limited to just bringing in new technologies and equipment in the country, but what users can get out of them. We will focus on technologys application in critical areas like healthcare, education, security and safety, and disaster management. From now on, our policy frameworks will have more practical guidelines on the ways to provide those services," Ismail Shah told BR Research.
One appreciates that focus. Pakistan can benefit from a mobile broadband ecosystem which goes beyond communicative connectivity and offers supplementary learning, enterprising opportunities, infotainment avenues, and payment/transaction channels. Government has a role to play here. But there is something else which it can also do, in a rather short time compared to long-term policy frameworks.
First of all, the government should immediately resolve the 18-month long YouTube suspension saga. Without YouTube, mobile broadband streaming experience is a damp squib. It not only takes away a large entertainment and multimedia sharing platform, but also denies folks valuable skills learnt through the how to visual learning that is YouTubes hallmark. There is already a dearth of local content. Continued YouTube ban would affect the future mobile broadband usage.
Beyond the urge for banning useful online platforms, the government must also do away with the high taxes applicable on telecom services. Currently, a 19.5 percent GST, coupled with a 15 percent FED on prepaid recharge, really blows a hole in subscribers pockets.
There is a concern that usage of mobile broadband services- - which will obviously be more expensive than the existing GPRS/EDGE data tariffs- - will remain low if the taxes are not brought down. (Taxes also impact operator revenues as subscribers can cut down on usage). The government cannot force future 3G operators to maintain prices. So, it should bring down the taxes to encourage usage.
As earlier noted in this column, a market development narrative is required. Users or consumers are central to that narrative, thats how the government and operators can achieve a win-win for everyone in the long- term.