ISLAMABAD: Pakistan is not yet ‘5G ready’ as there exists a considerable number of factors to address in facilitating market readiness, especially the lack of large contiguous blocks of affordable spectrum, broader access to fibre backhaul and widespread availability of affordable 5G smartphones and other devices, which are necessary preconditions in order to make it a success, says a report of World Bank.
This World Bank report commissioned by the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication was aimed at examining Pakistan’s readiness for 5G. The final report, “Pakistan: Telecommunications Advisory Assistance, 5G Readiness Plan for Pakistan”, stated that Pakistan’s current telecommunications market has been analysed to determine readiness for 5G through comparison with neighbouring countries and global benchmarks.
Pakistan has a large population and good potential for further economic growth, a currently congested mobile communication network, dynamic urban centres, the ability to access suitable 4G/5G spectrum relatively easily, under-developed fixed-line infrastructure and significant barriers to rapid deployment of fixed-line infrastructure.
The Pakistani mobile network operators (MNOs) have jointly stated that “The state of readiness of any project is fundamentally intertwined with both demand and supply side factors and the enabling framework (often a collaboration between public and private sector initiatives) and commercial viability.
Their joint submission went on to highlight the need for inter alia: Spectrum in the prime 5G bands including 700 MHz, 2.6 and 3.5 GHz and mmWave bands at significantly reduced prices in order to allow the MNOs to concentrate on service rollout and 5G ecosystem development in Pakistan; Mandated 5G Coverage and QoS levels to be kept at reasonable levels; Handset and data taxes to be removed to facilitate the rapid adoption and uptake of services; and fibre proliferation to be done urgently along with a plan to enhance wireless backhaul frequencies.
This report’s analysis unfortunately points to Pakistan’s IMT spectrum management policy as being the key factor which has held back the sector in fully investing in 4G deployment and sector competition. Furthermore, IMT Spectrum has been priced such that only the market leaders can afford to participate, further hindering Pakistan’s 5G-readiness.
The economic benefits of making additional 4G and 5G services available at reasonable prices in Pakistan significantly outweigh any revenue foregone from maximizing 5G spectrum prices. The corollary of the above is that Pakistan requires a more bespoke approach to its investment and launch of 5G services than other countries with more competitive mobile markets.
There should be an announcement that there is strong government support for Pakistan to deploy 5G services by 2022, whilst concurrently addressing the three key necessary conditions for this to successfully take place, namely – (i) larger contiguous blocks of reasonably priced spectrum in accordance with a spectrum roadmap so that Pakistan should have a goal to have 840 MHz of IMT spectrum allocated in low and mid-bands by end of 2022/early 2023. Any mmWave spectrum would be additional. This is consistent with ITU Guidelines for total IMT spectrum assignments; (ii) fiberisation/transmission capacity upgrades of backhaul capacity and (iii) policy support for consumers to gain access to more affordable 4G and 5G capable smartphones and other devices. Importantly, taking such steps now will also advantage existing 3G and 4G customers in Pakistan.
Concurrently with the above, there is a need to remove any regulatory or other obstacles for Pakistani MNOs should they wish to switch off legacy 2G or 3G networks. Improving market readiness Regulatory interventions and enacting supportive policies to facilitate key recommendations can accelerate market readiness and 5G adoption in Pakistan – policies such as promoting collaboration on network infrastructure.
The PTA has the opportunity to facilitate sector investment in high-speed services by promoting mobile competition as well as fixed competition with the acceleration of 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) services. Such deployments will have a positive economic impact. In order to realise the gains associated with 5G, significant investments in digital infrastructure must be made.
It is possible to conclude that the Pakistan market as at August 2021 is not yet 5G ready. However, it can be and must be because of the considerable benefits which high-speed wireless broadband including 4G and 5G will bring to Pakistan and its people.
Becoming 5G ready is possible for Pakistan with significant industry investment and stakeholder collaboration. To achieve such 5G Readiness, this World Bank 5G Readiness Plan for Pakistan recommends the following overall policy parameter recommendations, (1) The Government of Pakistan, the PTA and the FAB support the introduction of 5G services in Pakistan encouraging MNOs to invest in this transformational technology and take further facilitative steps as required including in relation to spectrum management, facilitating improvements to backhaul transmission and make 4G/ 5G handsets more affordable ensuring affordable 5G services are widely available in the 2022 and beyond timeframe.
(2)The Government of Pakistan should facilitate the creation of domestic content and exemplar applications which highlight the possible use of high speed wireless broadband services including 5G in the country in order to ‘seed’ the market for a range of innovative and productive use cases/applications. Spectrum management recommendations, (3) It is critical to increase regulatory certainty and provide Pakistan with a 5G spectrum future, by the Government of Pakistan, the PTA and the FAB committing to a IMT spectrum roadmap required to achieve the ITU’s IMT Spectrum Target of 840 MHz (excluding mmWave spectrum) as shown below. This roadmap could be done by an update to the 2020 Spectrum Rolling Strategy.
Specifically: (a) Ensure that IMT spectrum reserve pricing for the 1800/2100 MHz bands is reasonable and other auction rules are set so as to provide an opportunity for non-market leaders to acquire IMT spectrum. It is critical for suture sector competition that all MNOs be able to offer competitive 4G services and in the future 5G services; (b) Given device availability and affordability and the focus on Pakistan’s urban areas first (given available backhaul and higher income levels), the optimal pioneer 5G bands for Pakistan are the 3.5 GHz (n78) and the 2.3 GHz (n40) bands. Both are TDD capacity bands and available now. n40 has the advantage of it being used by MNOs initially for 4G services before transitioning to 5G services; (c) In the next phase, making the 2.6 GHz band (n41) available would add additional 4G/5G capacity spectrum in urban areas; while the 700 MHz (n28) band is optimal for coverage and would help to extend 4G/5G services outside Pakistan’s cities/towns.5 Subject to the resolution of the court case, the 2.6 GHz band could be concurrently released with the 2.3 GHz band, if so desired; and (d) While the 3.5 GHz band can only be used for 5G given harmonisation, the 2.3, 2.6 GHz and 700 MHz bands can be used for 4G and/or 5G as well. Thus the MNOs are able deploy 4G and then convert the band to 5G where possible based on 5G device penetration, demand etc in Pakistan. mmWave could be made available to the market in late 2022, if demand exists from MNOs and enterprises.
(5) Within Pakistan any allocation of 2.3, 2.6 and 3.5 GHz TDD spectrum, synchronisation between MNOs should be mandated with a 4:1 frame structure with it to be reviewed say in 5 years. Further, as required, Pakistan and its neighbouring countries with the assistance of the ITU, should agree synchronisation and frame structure for TDD systems in order to avoid harmful interference; Other telecommunications policy recommendations, (6) The MoITT and the PTA should facilitate 5G deployment in Pakistan by instituting a range of policy and regulatory reforms detailed in this Report permitting improved (i) fiberisation of backhaul and (ii) site access for tower and small cell rollout over the next 12-24 months or so especially in relation to public land, sites etc. Recent policy announcements on infrastructure sharing should be fully implemented; and (7) The PTA along with the Ministry of Health and other stakeholders should engage in a public education campaign in relation to 5G reassuring the public about the safety of the technology and that it is similar in terms of spectrum use that existing mobile services.
Facilitating Digital infrastructure, (8) In this area of digital infrastructure, there are four additional key recommendations which should be adopted by Government and the PTA for the success of 5G in Pakistan: (a) Improving ROW to facilitate 5G deployment. A national infrastructure database should be established to avoid costly damage to infrastructure, disruption of service and possibly personal injury; (b) Need for improved access to towers and sites for 5G deployment.
The PTA should also facilitate the establishment of industry bodies to develop uniform conditions/ self-regulatory models for infrastructure sharing, as well as, provide financial incentives to encourage infrastructure rollout and sharing in Pakistan. Any active sharing should be agreed upon in commercial terms, rather than mandated by government; (c) Support continued investment in International transmission capacity and cloud infrastructure. Having cloud infrastructure located within Pakistan is valuable for companies operating within Pakistan for convenience and lower latency; and (d) Support for the deployment of Internet of Things (IoT) in Pakistan by MNOs.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021