The Universal Service Fund is a semi-government entity, established under the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication. It is responsible for spreading telecom services to the unserved and underserved areas of Pakistan. It has awarded contracts to mobile operators such as Ufone, Zong, PTCL, and Telenor. The most recent contract, awarded to Telenor Pakistan, is meant to bring telecommunication to the Mohmand Agency and Dera Ismail Khan.
Irfan Wahab, CEO Telenor Pakistan, says the company has been working under USF’s Broadband for Sustainable Development Program (BSDP) since the beginning. In fact, Telenor Pakistan was the first telecom operator to complete a USF project back in 2009 in Bahawalpur. “It is pertinent to mention that we have served more than 4.9 million people in the under-served segment across Pakistan under the umbrella of USF projects, and the new projects will give another 1.7 million unserved people access to connectivity and digital services,” says Irfan. To enable access for Mohmand Agency, the route that will go through Charsadda and take an estimated two years to complete. The DI Khan route will run through the Indus Highway and is estimated to be completed in about a year.
A quick look at the USF website shows that the BSDP network sprawls throughout the nation, divided into 26 ‘lots’, six of which have been contracted or completed by Telenor, including Kohistan (Rs. 3.51 billion), Zhob (Rs. 3.61 billion), and Shangla (Rs. 1.95 billion).
“We have always worked for digital inclusion at the grassroots level driven by our vision of Empowering Societies and ambition of connecting people to what matters most. The infrastructure of the said projects will be robust enough to accommodate and deliver our complete suite of services, and with every site that we set up, we will ensure that the people living in these areas are able to benefit from virtually all of our voice and data services,” explains the CEO of Telenor Pakistan.
The advent of cellular services in remote areas such as these allows a market for services to be set up as well as opportunities for economic growth. Here the company’s services, specifically Easypaisa, comes into play. “Easypaisa, one of our flagship services, introduced branchless banking for the 85 percent unbanked and underbanked population of the country and now as we enter these districts, it will be available for all these people as well. The Easypaisa mobile app enables users to recharge their mobile accounts, make cash transactions, pay bills; the app continues to empower the Pakistani people and promote financial inclusion on a massive scale. Furthermore, Khushal Zamindar, Telenor’s mAgri product, aims to help small-scale farmers improve their yield manifold,” explains Irfan proudly.
Irfan also speaks of introducing entertainment services like Goonj and RadioMagan as well as ‘My Telenor App’ to deliver a complete suite of services, much the same way that Jazz is attempting with Veon, and more prominently, that WeChat has successfully established in China. This is a continued effort by companies all over the world to build digital ecosystems that dominate services and provide for every need a consumer has.
This is not to say that Telenor will maintain a monopoly over the towers it sets up, other service providers will be allowed to use them as well. The telco is also establishing solar power in each contracted area of the BSDP to power its network of towers. It has previously established solar power in Tharparkar and Buner in 2015 as part of its Green Energy practices.
“For DI Khan, a total of 59 sites will be set up while Mohmand Agency will see a total of 61 sites. For Mohmand Agency alone, we will be using 121 km of fiber as well. Infrastructure-wise, it is an important project because of the challenging terrain, security, and working conditions,” says Irfan. He continues, “It is also important to note that in our latest USF project in Chitral, we set up 121 sites bringing about 1.1 million unserved people into the fold of digital inclusion. Our biggest lot, however, is in Kohistan with more than 183 sites launched in total, serving close to 1 million people in the surrounding areas.”
While these projects have given Telenor an edge over the competition in remote areas, Irfan does admit that Telenor has faced massive hurdles. The security and well being of the entire team is always an issue; the nearest cities and medical/social services being hundreds of miles away. Land disputes hinder progress as well, as does the absence of infrastructure, i.e. the lack of a network of roads as well as a rocky and inhospitable terrain. These problems prevent the team from meeting deadlines.
Despite these hurdles, Irfan is optimistic for the future. Telenor has already completed 4 USF projects and is in the process of upgrading older sites where only 2G is available to 3G/4G sites. He does admit that it will be a lengthy process, but has some suggestions to speed it up.
Telenor recommends bundling Optical Fiber Cable (OFC) for future USF 3G/4G projects instead of carrying out separate projects for OFC rollout. This will enable operators to synergize costs and deploy cables more effectively. “At present,” explains Irfan, “there are many marginalized and otherwise deserving segments of society who cannot afford smartphones but stand to reap immediate benefits because of internet connectivity. We recommend introducing handset subsidy projects for these segments under USF to help people take advantage of the services and products being offered. We are on a mission of empowering the Pakistani society and providing its people with access to new opportunities. It satisfies us that our efforts towards reducing inequality are supplemented by players like USF working to give every Pakistani the right to modern telecommunication services.”
Smartphones are available at incredibly cheap prices today. QMobile’s cheapest smartphone, the X-2 Lite is available for just Rs. 3750. Cheaper alternatives exist but even so they are out of reach of the residents of these remote areas. A government subsidized program to make a cheap smartphone may help solve this problem. Google has already invested in a program called Android One, which makes smartphones specifically for bare bones consumers in emerging markets, surely such a program, tailored to the needs of the rural population, can make a difference here in Pakistan. Mobile service providers already give out free data plans to new customers so that won’t be a problem.
“Being totally in line with our mission of ‘empowering societies’, the projects also solidify our efforts toward Sustainable Development Goal of ‘Reducing Inequalities’. We believe technology should not be limited to only a certain class or area and must be shared with all to uplift lifestyles, and to resolve long standing social challenges. The larger our footprint, the more we have to contribute to the country and its people. We hope that our continued collaboration with USF will pave the way for a better future for the people in these under-served areas.”
Approximately 18% of the population of Pakistan has access to the internet, around 35.1 million. With approximately a million users coming online each month due to the adoption of cheap smartphones, the penetration is growing fast, and with that, so is employment in companies taking advantage of the internet. This is an opportunity for far reaching economic growth as well as a radical improvement in the lifestyles of common man. The USF program is a cornerstone of that change.