From the last some years, the mobile sector of Pakistan has witnessed remarkable bloom giving 169 million Pakistanis access to transformative technologies, including broadband. This increase in access has widespread benefits to Pakistan’s economy while boosting productivity. However, this figure to substantial growth also has a dark secret which reveals that still, 51 million Pakistanis are without access to mobile services, particularly in rural areas which leave Pakistan behind its neighbouring countries in terms of subscriber penetration on global and regional averages. We are very outspoken when it comes to talking about digital inclusion in Pakistan but we forget people at the bottom of the digital pyramid who are enthusiastic to make progress in their lives.
Mobile Operators have the potential of contributing to Pakistan’s economy and bridging the gap by investing in network rollout and quality of services improvements. According to GSMA, “The middle-income countries like Pakistan, a 10% increase in broadband penetration can accelerate economic growth by 1.38%.” The telecom system contributed around 5.4% of GDP, contributing Rs. 382.41 billion in revenues as of the year 2018-19.
Extending access to mobile services can empower more Pakistanis to participate in the economy, get out of poverty while supporting the country in achieving its vision of digitization.
So, what is holding digital inclusion back in Pakistan?
Today, the expansion of mobile broadband and the extension of digital inclusion in Pakistan is delayed and slowed down due to mobile-specific taxation. In Pakistan, 24 % of the people live below the poverty line, whereas 70% people cannot afford basic needs and the COVID-19 circumstances have made the situation worse. There is real potential to extend affordability to telecom services during these pressing days through a consumer tax reduction.
This will not only ease the burden on people but will also help telecom operators to introduce more economized consumer-centric data packages during this tenacious times. In such pressing times, when people are hardly meeting the necessary expenses including food, clothes and schooling, the government should temporarily abolish tax on data services to provide relief to people. During the onset of the first wave of Pandemic, PM Imran Khan had announced a relief package for the real estate industry which is an outstanding initiative to help them cope during this hard time. However, since the telecom industry contributes the most to the country’s economy, such relief should also be provided to them as Covid-19 has once again stuck us and educational institutes and most of the offices are observing online education and work respectively.
While speaking on Ministries role to cope with COVID-19 crisis, Fawad Chuhdary, Federal Minister for Science and Technology also stressed upon the enhanced provision of broadband and internet services to reach people across the country. While the government should opt for tax rationalization, telecom operators should try to incentivise services for customers, helping them cope with Covid-19.
Simultaneously, the widespread of this pandemic has given rise to virtual education which is equally affected due to limited access to the internet across AJK and GB and a high rate on data services due to taxation. COVID-19 is a national issue, and we need to get out of its crises by thinking systematically.
Just like the government had offered permission to MNOs for provision of their services during an earthquake in northern areas in 2005, this time we are almost in the same situation due to coronavirus so same decision needs to be taken.
“Mobile companies should facilitate the students with affordable mobile Internet packages, especially for those living in remote and far-flung areas”, said HEC Chairman Dr Tariq Banuri, while telling about the initiatives taken during these times.
The affordability of data services totally rely on the taxation, and now when everyone is using the internet for basic tasks including, education, work from home, online grocery, e-health and etc., the government should make more feasible policy in terms of tax collection to help Pakistan survive during COVID19.
Facilitating the Deprived Ones at the Bottom of Digital Pyramid
Following the coronavirus outbreak, Govt. should also advocate spectrum in AJK and GB, the regions with the highest literacy rate are only suffering due to unavailability of 3G/4G services. While everyone else has shifted to digital means to acquire online education, students from these areas are deprived of their basic right to connectivity. It is highly undesirable to continue depriving the population of AJK & GB of 3G/4G services at a time when they have been equally affected by this pandemic.
The journey of digital inclusion in Pakistan is not easy but it is also not impossible to reach the goal which our neighbouring countries have already achieved. Government’s Digital Pakistan Initiative is aimed at promoting growth and development for all so, there is a dire need to optimize the tax ecosystem for the telecom industry and provide our digitally divided areas with access to broadband services by immediately awarding spectrum to the CMOs.