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Thanks to the good work done by the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurements (PSLM) survey team, we now have a yearly update on where the country is heading when it comes to usage of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). The latest PSLM survey (2019-20), whose fieldwork was conducted from October 2019 to March 2020, has recently been released with district-level findings.

Among the key findings pertaining to ICTs, the latest PSLM shows that the percentage of Pakistani households with a ‘computer’ stood at 12 percent in 2020, down from 14 percent in 2019. Internet connection were present in only 33 percent of households in 2020, down from 34 percent in 2019. As for mobile phones, 45 percent of individuals (10 years or older) owned a mobile phone in 2020, showing no change from 2019. Only 25 percent of female population owned mobile phone in 2020, compared to 65 percent of male population. These numbers reflect the wide extent of digital divide facing Pakistan.

The data shared above show that there is a decline in two out of three indicators in a matter of a single year, which should be concerning for the stakeholders involved. Digging deeper, one also notices that the digital disparities among provinces continue to exist. While the indicators of households with computer and Internet are abysmal overall, it is Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) that have better penetration levels than Sindh and Balochistan. And even within provinces, there is vast inter-district disparity.

For instance, within Punjab, households with computers were only 3 percent in the Rajanpur district, but a higher 24 percent for Lahore district. Similarly, in Sindh, households with Internet connections were only 3 percent in Tharparkar district, but 67 percent in Karachi (district East). Over in Balochistan, households with mobile phones were 70 percent in Khuzdar district (not to be confused with individual mobile phone ownership), but it was almost 100 percent in Pishin district. In KP, 51 percent of households in Peshawar district had an Internet connection, compared to only 2 percent of households in South Waziristan district.

Within each province, there are pockets of high and low ICT penetration. For instance, northern and central regions of Punjab have many districts with over 20 percent of households having Internet connection, as do north-eastern and south-western Sindh, northern and eastern KP, and northern and southern Balochistan. But most districts across provinces lag behind. There is work cut out for government that champions ‘Digital Pakistan’ and telecom operators who feel they have done a great job.

To be fair, digital inequality is a reflection of other deep-rooted inequalities of economic and cultural nature that will require a lot of sustained effort to disable. However, ICTs can act as a catalyst in easing socioeconomic deprivations, by exposing people in the fallen-behind districts to digital skills that can be monetized for sustenance, if not sudden prosperity. The key is to nudge the younger population in under-developed regions to learn skills like coding and programming, instead of having them use the Internet solely for the purpose of social media engagement and entertainment consumption.

Most of Pakistan is offline, and this does not bode well for the country’s development. While the government needs to come up with solutions to make computing devices and broadband access affordable, the supply-side should also beef up its coverage capacity to reach out to the under-served and un-served regions. The telecoms regulator also has a role in ensuring that operators are held accountable to coverage obligations, especially in districts with really low broadband penetration. The USF model, fêted in its formative years, also needs an overhaul, as it has struggled to make a serious impact.

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