USF expected to spread broadband services

KARACHI: The Universal Service Fund (USF) has played a great role in spreading telecom services in far-flung areas of Pakistan and experts believe it can play its part again in the promotion of broadband services across the country.

Pakistan’s largest province by area, Balochistan, witnessed the development of telecom infrastructure and services by various telecommunication operators through USF projects worth billions of rupees in 2017.

USF, an autonomous organisation under the Ministry of Information Technology, since 2007 has disbursed grants worth Rs50 billion to different operators for projects in different telecom regions.

Ufone received the highest subsidy of Rs14 billion followed by PTCL with Rs12.2 billion and Telenor with Rs5.2 billion.

“USF has set out an aggressive strategy to roll out basic infrastructure for telecommunication, basic telephone and internet services for the people and businesses in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Fata,” said a USF spokesperson. According to USF data, five out of six optical fibre projects were based in Balochistan, yet there is big room for improvement since the province has the lowest number of mobile phone users.

About 46% of the province’s population has no access to either mobile, wireless or a fixed line network.

Since January 2017, USF has been working to spread first telephone and now broadband services in remote areas like Awaran-Lasbela, Kohistan, Kharan-Washuk, Dera Bugti, Khyber and Mohmand, which is playing a huge role in socio-economic uplift of people and creating immense opportunities in far-flung areas for progress and prosperity, said the USF spokesperson.

After completing the goal of covering more than 90% of Pakistan’s telephonic signals, now USF can play a vital role in broadband penetration by taking three steps laying fibre optic cables, digital literacy and creating local content, said Parvez Iftikhar, who served as the first USF CEO. Internet will only work if people of far-flung areas know how to use the tech devices particularly smartphones and USF can train people in schools, hospitals, government offices or other places for social gathering.

USF will also need to create local content. People in remote areas are generally from poor backgrounds, so they would invest in a smartphone if they find content about their daily life like new techniques of farming or tips about cattle rearing in local language.

USF can create this content at one place, translate into different languages and disseminate it to those areas. “This is how USF will also create demand for cellular companies for their internet services since it is their major source of income now,” Iftikhar added. Google recently introduced in India a low-cost smartphone running on light-weight mobile software Android Oreo Go to target the billion-plus people on internet at a price of Rs2,000. It will come to Pakistan also as it is one of the four countries which has potential users of internet and Google is the main source to use internet.

USF has more than Rs60 billion in books, though the government is believed to have transferred Rs50 billion to the Ministry of Finance in order to pay circular debt. USF financing is indispensable for the expansion and penetration of ICT services across Balochistan, which is likely to give a synergetic effect to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and attract cellular operators to expand their network within the province, said the USF spokesperson.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 4th, 2018.

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