Unlocking Pakistan’s 5G potential: A call to action

Nov 27, 2023
Telecommunications tower with 4G, 5G transmitters, cellular base station with transmitter antennas on abstract Triangulated Background with icons. Communication Mobile Technology concept. Copy Space.

In March 1995, Pakistan’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting took a bold step by granting a 15-year license to M/s Pay TV to establish a wireless TV network. The intention was clear: to harness the potential of wireless technology for the nation’s development. Years later, we find ourselves at a crossroads, with the promise of 5G technology on the horizon. However, this promise is marred by a complex web of legal battles and mismanagement that threaten to derail Pakistan’s digital future.

Back in 1996, FAB (then Pakistan Wireless Board) allocated frequencies to M/s Pay TV in 2500 MHz band for three cities i,e Karachi (140 MHz), Lahore and Islamabad (84 MHz each). In the same year, Pay TV entered into a joint venture with Shaheen Foundation to form M/s Shaheen Pay TV. Fast forward to 2004, M/s SPTV was taken over by M/s Southern Network Limited (SNL) and M/s SNL claimed all rights, including frequency granted to M/S Pay TV, in contravention of license obligations. FAB did not approve the frequency for M/s SNL, yet it continued to use it. Meanwhile, PEMRA issued three multiple distribution system licenses to M/s SNL for ten years, further complicating the matter.

M/s SNL’s actions were met with resistance. They filed a writ petition in Sindh High Court in 2007 to establish a wireless TV network and maintain their claim over the frequency spectrum. The court issued a stay order in 2007. However, in 2014, PEMRA revoked all licenses to M/S SNL due to violations of agreed-upon clauses, including unauthorised changes in management. Surprisingly, M/s SNL managed to secure a stay order from Sindh High Court in 2017. Even their Non-Voice Communication Network (CVAS) license from PTA, issued in 2003 for 15 years, expired in 2018, yet they continue to use the frequency spectrum under the plea of the Sindh High Court stay order.

According to insiders, highly influential businessmen / politicians are behind this delay, use aid maximise strategy.

The battle over radio spectrum might seem like a technical matter, but it is, in fact, a matter of national significance. Radio spectrum is one of the state’s most valuable asset recognised by International Telecommunication Union (ITU) as well, and its efficient allocation is crucial for telecommunications and digital development. It is the lifeline of connectivity, broadband penetration, and the enabling platform for digital growth and IT exports.

Notably, the 2500 MHz band currently occupied by M/s SNL has been identified as the prime choice for IMT 2020 deployments, including 5G technology, by the ITU. The deployment of 5G in Pakistan could generate millions of dollars for the national exchequer.

The government of Pakistan is gearing up to launch 5G services in 2023. However, there are concerns about non availability of prime spectrum for 5G in 2500 MHz with Government for auction offerings to industry, limited optical fiber connectivity as prerequisites for 5G networks, low 5G handset adoption, the cost of spectrum, coverage obligations, and the timing of the auctions. These litigation uncertainties on 2500 MHz band spectrum might deter operators from making significant investments.

Globally, the rollout of 5G technology is in full swing, with an estimated 1.9 billion 5G connections expected by the end of 2023, growing to nearly 6 billion in 2027. Meanwhile, Pakistan is still in the planning stages.

The advantages of 5G technology are undeniable. With low latency, high throughput, reliability, and widespread connectivity, 5G is the linchpin for startups, incubators, mission-critical applications, IoT, and artificial intelligence in fields such as education, medicine, research, agriculture, fin-tech and more. According to Qualcomm, 5G could create 22 million jobs and contribute $12.3 trillion to global GDP by 2035.

Moreover, 5G has the potential to revolutionise industries. For instance, the adoption of 5G in the production of bladed disks (BLISKs) for aircraft engines could save millions annually. According to the Center of Aerospace and Security Studies, 5G could contribute over $32 billion to GDP in South Asia by 2030, with India leading the way.

Pakistan is among top 5 countries in terms of IT freelancing with $400 million export remittances in FY 2020-21 and also secured IT export of $ 2.6 billion in last financial year. With 5G, faster download speeds, low latency, and increased capacity can open new avenues in virtual reality, IoT, and AI, potentially catapulting IT exports to new heights. The government is taking necessary steps to address these issues and improve infrastructure to foster economic growth and regional competitiveness.

In August 2022, FAB approved available spectrum for 5G auctions, signaling a positive step towards unlocking Pakistan’s 5G potential. But to fully harness this opportunity and recover illegally occupied spectrum, a unified stance and action from PEMRA, PTA, FAB, and MOITT are imperative. The stay order granted by Sindh High Court in 2007 must be removed to pave the way for 5G deployment. In this regard, Honourable Courts are also requested to understand the threads of emerging technologies and take cognizance of 5G spectrum efficacy for socio-economic needs of the country for granting of early relief. Def focus of Pakistan have voluntarily surrendered the spectrum under their usage unconditionally and without any cost. The examples need to be emulated by others.

Pakistan’s journey towards 5G technology is at a critical juncture. The successful implementation of 5G has the potential to revolutionise the country’s economy, create jobs, and elevate Pakistan’s global standing. It is high time for all stakeholders to come together, resolve legal disputes, and ensure a timely rollout of 5G—a technology that holds the key to Pakistan’s digital future.

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