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There is another indication of the the digital economy getting a boost during the pandemic. As per latest data from the telecom watchdog, mobile broadband (3G and 4G) subscriptions had reached 99.85 million as of June-end 2021, a significant increase of 23 percent year-on-year. The tally has, in most likelihood, crossed the 100 million mark by now. This is certainly an important milestone in the ultimate objective to provide access of affordable broadband services to millions of Pakistanis that are yet un-served.

There is some distance to go before universal mobile broadband coverage can be achieved in a market that has faced roadblocks in improving the density of fixed mobile broadband. While mobile broadband subscriptions stand at 100 million, the number of “unique users” is likely a lower number due to the Multiple-Sim Phenomenon. If one goes by the assumption that every third mobile phone user owns two subscriptions in Pakistan, the number of unique mobile broadband users comes to 75 million.

Considering there are some 120 million Pakistanis who are 18 years or older, hence legally qualified to buy their own subscription via CNIC, the current coverage level of around 75 million users would mean that mobile broadband has yet to reach about 40 percent of the addressable market. The market is probably much larger as some teenagers are allowed by their parents to use smartphones. Therein lies the potential for more investment into 4G networks, frequency spectrum, fiber-optic backhaul, and of course, smartphone assembly right here at home.

Back to the numbers game, the operators collectively added roughly 19 million new 3G and 4G subscriptions during FY21. This is an all-time-high annual addition (in absolute terms) since the mobile broadband services started rolling out after the mega spectrum auction held in 2014. The subscription tally of roughly 100 million at the end of FY21 has almost doubled in three years’ time. Pandemic is presumed to be at work, too, as requirements for work-based and non-work digital interactions increased.

Among the operators, Jazz leads the mobile broadband arena both in terms of its market share (38%) as well as its capacity to add a higher number of subscriptions. Zong is at the second spot with a 28 percent market share, Telenor at number three with a 22 percent slice, and Ufone trailing them at 11 percent. Not all operators are having success in monetizing these data services in a price-sensitive market.

Maintaining the pace of subscription additions may be a bit harder, as unlocking the next 50 million subscriptions will require a whole lot of new investments. Besides, there are are already large disparities when it comes to access and usage of mobile phone services among men and women, within regions (urban and rural) and across provinces. (For more on connectivity-linked inequalities in Pakistan, read “PSLM on ICTs,” published June 17, 2021). PTA will do well to require operators to report detailed subscription data in the future, including on the aspects related to regional and gender uptake.


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