The coronavirus pandemic has changed how Pakistan and the world works and connects, highlighting the need for a rapid acceleration in Pakistan’s digital transformation. Over the past few months, we have seen small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) move their operations online and students attend virtual classes. Many of us are now working remotely and we are spending more time online - whether to connect with friends and family or for business.
With physical distancing guidelines still in place in much of the world, how successfully countries navigate our uncertain times will partly depend on making the internet a more inclusive place.
The global health crisis has made the benefits of internet access clear - access to reliable health information, to online learning resources and to e-commerce opportunities have become increasingly important and have made evident the cost of not being online, underscoring the need for Pakistan to urgently renew its efforts to bring more people online in an inclusive way.
Less than 25 percent of Pakistan’s population are internet users and the country experiences low internet speeds relative to other surveyed countries, according to a The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Inclusive Internet Index published this year, which ranked Pakistan 76 out of 100 countries. Incentivizing internet use through relevant and affordable services, providing people with the skills to use online services and increasing access to high-speed internet networks are just some of the areas that the report singles out for improvement.
But Pakistan shows strengths in other areas, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit report. These include: maintaining a competitive wireless and broadband sector, policy frameworks focused on expanding internet access and a high-level of trust in online applications. Finally, as we see on the Facebook family of apps every day, there is an abundance of innovation among people and SMBs in Pakistan which provides a strong foundation upon which Pakistan can build a broader digital economy.
The Facebook Connectivity team has been working with hundreds of partners around the world to explore new ways to bring fast, reliable internet to those without it.
Here are some solutions that can accelerate the availability of digital infrastructure in Pakistan:
Shared optical fiber networks As demand for data-heavy services, such as video calling and gaming, grows, the optimal solution is to deploy more shared optic fibers across the country. Deploying optical fibers in Pakistan is crucial to increase the data capacity telecom networks can carry and sharing the fibers between multiple operators will reduce the cost. In countries such as Indonesia, Nigeria and Uganda, Facebook has provided investments and planning support for such networks.
Help provide great Wi-Fi Wi-Fi is a cornerstone of the world’s connectivity needs and during COVID-19 the value and advantages of good Wi-Fi networks have only increased. The challenge with Wi-Fi networks is often to find business models that are sustainable.
Express Wi-Fi is a software platform developed by Facebook that enables internet service providers to build, operate, grow and monetize their Wi-Fi business. Express Wi-Fi partnerships are currently live in Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand with nearly 70,000 monthly active users.
High-quality internet in dense urban areas There are also many dense urban areas where it is not possible to deploy optical fibre networks. However, solutions such as Terragraph can provide high-capacity wireless connectivity by using mmWave radios that can be deployed on street poles and provide high-speed internet access without the cost and time of trenching fiber to every home and business. In George Town, Malaysia, a local internet service provider has deployed Terragraph to provide fixed wireless access services to businesses and public Wi-Fi to citizens and tourists.
None of these solutions alone will solve the connectivity challenges that Pakistan faces, but they can contribute as part of a holistic approach to digital inclusion that encompasses public and private efforts.
With distance learning here to stay, and as technological innovations continue to play a leading role in health, education, risk and natural disaster management, to name just a few areas, how quickly people in Pakistan can access digital tools will become increasingly important to help accelerate economic growth and provide solutions in the fight against poverty and inequality.
Facebook stands ready to explore and support new connectivity solutions aimed at accelerating Digital Pakistan.