Proposals for the new government

Government should create the new Information Technology policy urgently, with inputs from all stakeholders.

Parvez Iftikhar June 10, 2013
The writer works as an Information and Communication Technology Consultant in Asia and Africa. He is a former CEO of Universal Service Fund (Pakistan) and can be reached @Parvez_Iftikhar

The PML-N has done well to appoint Anusha Rehman as the new Information Technology minister. As an ICT professional myself, I venture to suggest what the government should now do.

Information and communication technology is a fast-moving high-tech sector where policies get outdated quickly. The government should take up the job of creating the new ICT policy urgently, with inputs from all stakeholders. However, there is no need to wait for the policies to be in place before starting the long-delayed, vital ICT development programmes.

Broadband deserves a special treatment because its impact on the Millennium Development Goals is now widely acknowledged. Since 2010, the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development has been actively helping countries prioritise the roll-out of high-speed broadband networks through National Broadband Plans to support their goals of inclusive economic growth and competitiveness in the information age.

Most countries have realised the importance of Optic Fibre Highways and are working feverishly to increase fibre penetration. When I was working at Universal Service Fund, we made good progress in the programme, “Optic Fibre to every Tehsil”. Now, the need is to extend the fibre to all the 6,000-plus Union Councils, terminating at the community tele-centres there. Even in the short term, thousands of jobs will be created through this effort.

High-speed broadband connected community tele-centres could become a source for all kinds of information for villagers. Each centre, equipped with PCs, allied equipment, Wi-Fi hot spots and renewable sources of power, should be run by rural development organisations that have roots in those areas, with professionally trained trainers. The broadband connectivity available at these centres could then be extended to neighbouring schools, healthcare centres, post offices and government offices, etc.

Out of all the destinations of broadband, none is more important than in schools. Information and Communication Technology is all-encompassing since it impacts every sector of the economy. Therefore, if our new generation does not grow up with the knowledge of using ICTs, they will be left behind. It has been learnt that connecting schools with broadband is not the only need of the hour. In fact, the provincial education and school administrations should be on board to develop/provide relevant local content (with links to the curriculum), create portals, implement child protection policies, and train the teachers. The need to train cannot be stressed enough.

It is a pity that even Afghanistan has 3G and we do not! Worldwide, there are more than two billion 3G subscriptions. The PML-N manifesto favours 4G (100 million users worldwide). It is the private sector that then goes for the most viable technology in the given spectrum band. But there is simultaneous space for 3G as well as 4G. Therefore, the spectrum for both should be auctioned, with less emphasis on the price and more on widespread, time-barred roll-out obligations.

Fortunately, in ICT, government budget constraints are not something to worry about but the government has to provide clear policies, fair regulations and a level playing field to promote competition and let the citizens enjoy the fruits. If at all the government has to intervene with cash, it is in areas that the private sector doesn’t find lucrative enough. And, for that, there is the Universal Service Fund. It is the private sector which brought the 2G revolution in Pakistan, along with massive amounts of foreign direct investment, and it is the private sector which should be given the challenge again.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 11th, 2013.                                                                                        

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Parvez Iftikhar | 8 years ago | Reply

Thank you all for very valuable comments. I would like to respond to 2 issues: 1. Afghanistan - Randomstranger, as understood and mentioned by some of the commentators above, the intent was in fact to praise Afghanistan - that despite being in a war for 3 decades now, they have gone ahead of us in this domain. Superb! 2. Energy and other crises - AHmed, we cannot postpone developing ICTs till some other important crises get resolved, not only because we cannot afford the time, but also because ICTs are actually going to help in resolving those other crises! Ever heard of "Smart Grids" for efficient management of Energy and "Education and Information" to the farmers and other villagers to make them more productive for themselves and their families? One problem is that we cannot stop thinking of Broadband as only YouTube and Facebook. That is why I have stressed in my article that it is important to develop/provide relevant local content and provide training on how to use it.

Saleem | 8 years ago | Reply

Pervaiz Sahib, You have brought the ICT issue at the right time. I believe the new Govt. has the motivation, capacity and talent to manage several of the priorities in parallel. We can define the the 'Top 10' priorities and work in parallel. Gone are the days of serial processing. Already within days of taking over we have seen Govt's action on multiple areas -- energy being one of them. If the challenges presents themselves now, then this is the right time to act, not some other time. We should consider these challenges as opportunities. It is time to grab these opportunities and benefit the Nation.

In fact, with USF funding available and 3G/4G auction potential (USD 1 Billion) ICT would be low hanging fruit which can have a significant positive impact on the ICT, Education and Economy.

Broadband access can change the world for our rural population. We all know the positive impact of education. 'Khan Academy' is a case in point, and there are many more examples in spreading education. Today, even the Ivy Leage schools have accepted the fact that Online education is the best means of spreading education. We have to bring our literacy rate at par (above 90%) with the developed nations.

Your comment on Afganistan should be taken in the positive sense (as I believe was the intent of it). If Afganistan, with so many problems and in a' war like' state can see the benefit of 3G then the case for Pakistan is very clear.

If we consider the impact of ICT on our neighbours economy than there is a lesson to be learned. ICT related revenues of India are projected to be US $ 100 billion this year. A growth from US $ 65 billion last year. Even if we take a 'fudge factor' of 10-15% of the quoted figures, it is still a significant number to reflect upon.

ICT professionals can easily see the benefits and opportunities Technology can bring. It is the Planners of the nation who have to be convinced. It may be a good time to organize forums where public and private entities get together, first to bring in awarenes and then to propose practicable solutions and thrash out a 'fast track' to improved economy.

Finally, in the quest for the 'fast track to improved economy' ICT should be a key component. Technology by definition if used to speed up connetivity, rapid response and decisions and implementation, shall no doubt make a big dent towards growth.

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