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Nothing wrong to dream about a Digital Pakistan, but it is important to remember that fruits of any technology, and it has been so since time ancienne, have been contingent on how the technology is applied. At best, digital technologies can empower youth through connectivity-based learning, skills, innovation and startups. At worst, digital technologies can exacerbate existing inequalities that have shut out a major chunk of youth from good education and jobs.

The weakest link for a Digital Pakistan is “access”. Without affordable access to services like high-speed mobile broadband and hardware like Internet-enabled phones, a majority of the public will remain out of the “new” system of doing things. After all, what food will be e-governance or digital learning bring when the bulk of the demand-side, which need those services the most, cannot even avail those services?

Therefore, today’s digital doyens must tackle access first. As per latest PTA data, the penetration of mobile broadband (3G and 4G services) is at a third of the population. It’s been more than five years since this technology was introduced but the uptake is significantly more in urban areas. The less said about fixed broadband penetration, which languishes at about 5 percent, the better. Broadband taxes haven’t helped. (For more on taxes, read “Federal broadband tax,” published July 4, 2019).

Beyond shiny official statistics lie some uncomfortable truths. Going through the World Bank’s latest Global Findex database reveals that about 50 million Pakistani adults did not use (that is, have no ownership of or access to) mobile phone at all, as of 2017. (For more on that, read “Findex finds Pakistan lagging,” published April 24, 2018). Given the scale of income and gender inequalities in Pakistan, it would be safe to presume that prominent among those digitally-excluded people are poor girls and women.

What about the existing users? Well, it isn’t like the digitally-“served” population with some “73 million” 3G and 4G subscriptions is doing any better their twiddling thumbs. The case for digital usage must go beyond social media or watching videos. Compared to the existing scale of Internet users, functional usage is low. SBP data as of March 2019 show that there were only 3 million Internet banking users and 5 million mobile banking users. Both digital and financial exclusions are at work behind these low numbers.

The official “success story” in recent years regarding tech’s dividends is that of the “financial inclusion” under the branchless banking domain. As of September 2019, there were roughly 22 million “active” branchless banking accounts. Sounds promising, right? Only that bulk of these accounts are registered on the basic, text-based USSD channel instead of being registered on the Internet-based mobile app. Besides, definition of “active accounts” – opened or used in last 180 days – is lax. It should be 90 days.

Besides affordable and accessible services, also linked to access is the issue of expensive imported hardware that is out of reach of the majority of the population. On one hand, the tariff hawks within the bureaucracy have been unwilling to let Pakistan accede to the global Information Technology Agreement (ITA).

Accession to the ITA is supposed to serve the purpose of lowering the landed cost of imported telecom handsets, machinery and apparatus. (For more on that, read “Bridging digital divide,” published July 12, 2017). And on the other hand, in the absence of joining the ITA, there has been no headway for years on local manufacturing or assembly of mobile handsets.

Indeed, “access and connectivity” are identified under the Digital Pakistan Initiative’s five pillars. It is good to see the promise of making Internet access a “fundamental right”. There is a special reference to “under-served” regions as well. But what exactly is the policy framework to translate aspirations into actions? Will the operators be given specific guidelines to improve access among marginalized groups? How will the Universal Service Fund be reformed? Will taxes be rationalized or zeroed altogether?