Telecom Activity Roundup in AJK & NA

This report from Daily Times provides a good activity roundup relating to new Telecommunication initiatives in Azad Jammu Kashmir and Northern Areas. From the report:

In the wake of October 8 earthquake, the PTA granted temporary permission to mobile phone companies operating in Pakistan for provision of services in quake-hit areas. Later on, they were invited to obtain permanent licenses for AJK and NAs against the ILF of $10 million each.

Subsequently four mobile companies Mobilink, Ufone, Warid and Telenor acquired licenses by paying 50 percent of the license fee ($5 million) each upfront as per the terms of the payment. The $20 million (Rs 1.2 billion) collected by PTA from four operators has been deposited with the AJK Council Secretariat and Chief Secretary, NAs in the ratio of 77:23 based on the population of the two areas. Their share was Rs 927.696 million and Rs 277.104 million respectively. In view of special circumstances, PTA has not deducted any fee from the amount.

The fifth mobile license for AJ&K and NAs has recently been issued to CMPak (Paktel) for which the fees would be deposited under the same arrangements. All five mobile companies will pay remaining 50 percent (i.e. $5 million each) in 10 equal annual installments.

It may be mentioned that, with the introduction of mobile phone services people of these areas are getting enhanced communication facilities. So far, cellular operators in AJK and NAs have provided one million mobile connections. Mobile service is available in the following areas of AJK including Bagh, Bhimber, Bharhing, Kotli, Muzzafferabad, Palandri, Rawalakot, Mirpur, Dhirkot, Ghari Duppatta, Hattian Bala, Dhudyal, Barnala, Kakra, Islam Gargh, Dirkot, Chamankot, Baloch, Sehnsa, KhuiRatta, Hajira, Tarar Khel, Abbas Pur, Jaraee, Rajdhani. Thraowchi, Puna, Sumani, Charoi, Fatepur, Barnala, Paniola, etc. In Northern Areas Gilgit, Hunza, Chilas, Skardu, Shigar, Danyor have been provided mobile services.

Moreover, Special Communication Organisation (SCO) which was the major provider of telecom services in the region till very recent is working on its several developmental activities including Rural Telecom Uplift Project Phase-II for provision of 80,000 telephone lines (along with 266 km Optic Fibre), enhancement of GSM capacity by 65,000 lines, laying of 570 km optic fibre, 26 digital exchanges with VSAT connectivity and laying of outside plant (OSP) in NAs.

SCO is also planning to lay optical fibre cable link for international connectivity between China and Pakistan.

SCO has also taken initiatives to provide Internet services to these areas in the form of Dialup, DSL and CDMA 1X services by entering into O&M agreements with existing providers in Pakistan.

Telenor & MNP

Image005.jpgThe image below is from an extremely low income area – infact, a slum in Karachi. A small cabin-shop that deals in mobile phones, PCO and allied services is serving the population of the katchi abadi.

Owning a cell phone is pretty common even in the very-low income groups in (at least) the bigger cities of Pakistan – thanks to the celluar services boom we are finding ourselves in these days.

As could be seen from the poster visible in the image below, someone who cannot even spell Telenor correctly has pasted these posters across most of similar shops in the slum announcing the MNP facility. When I inquired about this from the shopkeeper whether this is a service exclusive to his outfit he replied in negative saying instead that this is being ‘done by the company’. As we can well decipher, it does not seem like a Telenor’s official announcement but it is almost certain that Telenor has at least some amount of resources dedicated for hooking up even the baseline low ARPU customers into its folds via the MNP route most probably via some sort of market agents.

Dialup Internet Access To Cost More

Reports in the media are pointing towards a possibility that PTCL has plans to start charging for the UIN access (access to special Internet Numbers called University Internet Access Number that start with the characteristic 131 digits) from a single call for the entire call duration to a time-based pulse charging mechanism.

Shahzad Ahmad of has summed up the case at PakistanICTPolicy forum:

This is horrendous, outrageous, unethical and unacceptable. This is not ON PTCL! Government of Pakistan, you can NOT approve this evil plan. Would you like to block and limit people’s access to Internet in the country?

How could PTCL take back the affordability of non-metered calls facility for dialup Internet access? Curse of monopoly!  In a country of 160+ million people, where number of Internet users is already very low, just around 4 million and now PTCL wants to further reduce this number? This is just lust for more money and profit. This is robbery by PTCL on Internet users.

For many years now, ICTs have been one of the major focus of the Government of Pakistan. May it well be due to market dynamics, modernization drive, peculiar circumstances, the country seen some massive, though unbalanced growth in different areas of ICTs penetration in the country. Pakistan formulated its first ever IT Policy in 2000, followed by an ambitious Action Plan.

Since then, a huge investment has been made in ICT infrastructure in the country.  Special facilities like non-metered Internet calls (where only one local call will be charged for any amount of time), even for long distance from small towns were quite unique steps for providing Universal Internet Access. We still remember the days, when Dr. Ata ur Rahman, then Minister of IT would take a lot of pride in his each TV appearance, always mentioning this revolutionary step. Indeed, at that time non-metered calls contributed very positively, providing global Internet connectivity to remote cities and towns in the country. In fact, this resulted Pakistan having the most extensive Internet coverage among the countries of South Asia.

We actually never believed in this TV report breaking the news that PTCL is taking back the facility of affordable non-metered calls and now a call will be charged every 15 minutes of the connectivity time. This means that for each 24 hours of internet usage, the user will pay extra for 96 calls at the rate of approximately Rs. 2.50 per call making the bill to be around Rs. 240/- in addition to ISP charges.

Currently, a user pays about Rs. 300 per month for 24 hours unlimited dialup connection and then telephone bill costs around 35-40 calls a month. This makes the Internet connectivity very possible at reasonable cheap rate in this country, where larger population is low income.

In the changed scenario, where PTCL wants to charge more money for each dialup call, believe me students community will be the most affected. People who need 24 hours connectivity for email/Internet will suffer immensely.

Let’s join hands to raise voice to stop PTCL from its money grabbing tactics. It is so silly that a dialup connection will become much more expensive than a DSL.

Just to let you all know that Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan (ISPAK) has issued a protest call on Monday, the 24th September, 2007. They plan to talk to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority as well. If nothing happens then ISPAK plans to move Supreme Court of Pakistan.

We request all concerned civil society organizations, relevant associations, individuals and media outfits to please help stop this evil plan of PTCL to block and limit people’s access to Internet. Yes, it indeed is blocking people’s access to Internet. Lust for grabbing more money from poor people of Pakistan is actually not going to contribute any good to the overall socio-economic development of the country.

If PTCL goes ahead with its evil plan, we propose “take-back-the-net” campaign and country wide protests. We will involve all relevant associations, IT Industry, media and general public to stop this. If PTCL insists on continuing with this plan then Government of Pakistan should provide alternatives to Internet users in the country. PTCL’s monopoly is unacceptable.

Mobilink embraces data

The long on-going, almost over-due project was declared signed and closed with Alcatel-Lucent. Daily time has the full story here. This is going to be the second major countrywide Wimax project, the earlier one being deployed by Wateen and uses Motorola’s gear. The project, whose financial size or commercial availability dates has not yet been publicly disclosed, reportedly makes extensive use of the strong channel sales partners that Mobilink has developed in the rewarding cellular market of Pakistan over the past many years.

The next similarly sized announcement should come from PTCL which is still talking to a number of solution vendors in this domain. Apart from these three large scale projects, a number of other entities, some of which are in the security infrastructure of the country, are deploying Wimax technology for their respective requirements.

There are till a number of players like Telecard and Cybernet who won the 3.5 Ghz frequency in the open auctions during deregulation but are not moving ahead with their Wimax adventures for want of some business case precedence and internal priorities.

Prepaid Easyload

Prepaid cellular services have been such a success in our part of the world that the otherwise business and professional account holders that go for post paid options are paradoxically marginalized in a number of ways. Let me explain.

If you have a prepaid account which just has a balance of, say, Rs 50, you can make international calls right away. When your balance expires and you load a new scratch card, the balance get transfered immediately to your account and you are back in business. Finally, to cater for the low-end users, there are countless outlets that provide you both with recharge scratch cards and sms-driven ‘easyload’ service – that allows a finer granularity of pre-paid balance to be transferred to the subscriber’s account.

My postpaid connection experiences were a set of disappointments when juxtaposed with the prepaid connections accounts my family member had. While they enjoyed international outgoing facility, my Warid account provided by my previous employer did not have that facility turned out despite the fact that I had a credit balance of Rs 2,500 at that time. When I turned to Telenor later this year, I made it a point to have the International calling facility on the plan – as if getting it was something that much attention worthy. Others already had it. To my disappointment, Telenor’s franchise apparently messed up with the account opening procedure and I had to actually request Telenor to turn the facility on. So much for being a postpaid customer.

Next, when it comes to bill payment, one has to find a Telenor office or a franchise location that by the way are not too many. While matters are apparently ok at the original Telenor offices around the city, the franchise offices that I experience (three of them) where all a sorry tale. Not only was customer services were bad but the actual payment system was a pain too. Deposited amount took ages to appear in the account. In one case, even when the account received the deposited money, the system could not take it out of the previous ‘suspended’ state. It took them over 12 hours to let me make the first outgoing call. Privileges of a post-paid customer!

I had always wondered why the ‘esteemed’ customers of these cellular companies cannot buy a top-up card like their pre-paid fellows and have their balance limit enhanced when this is needed at an odd hour of the day or an odd corner of the city. Better still, with easyload thing being done everywhere, why can’t I easy load a few hundred rupees in my postpaid account to keep it fueled up?

So I was happy today to receive an SMS from Telenor that they have started doing the obviously apparent customer service thing – allowing easyload on postpaid connections for Telenor customer service. I must use it tomorrow and share the experience here. If all works as advertised, Telenor has done itself a real good by enabling its post-paid customers to keep going – just like their prepaid cousins.

Now only if I could ‘donate’ some balance to a prepaid Telenor buddy of mine off my postpaid credit limit! :)

Etisalat might double stakes in PTCL

In what seems like a signal that the party night is still young, Etisalat is said to be considering an increase in its shares in PTCL from 26 per cent to 51 per cent. A repeat order, after all, is a sign of the ordering partying enjoying the value of the stuff ordered!

DUBAI (Reuters) – Emirates Telecommunications Corp. (Etisalat) said on Sunday it was considering doubling its stake in Pakistan Telecommunications Co. to 51 percent.

“We are evaluating that option and once we’ve arrived at the decision that this is positive, we will talk to the (Pakistani) government,” Chairman Mohammed Hassan Omran told Reuters. He declined to say when the decision might be made.

Etisalat had earlier bought 26 per cent shares and management control in a privatization deal with the Government of Pakistan. The deal has been repeatedly attracting objections, criticism and bad press for a number of reasons ever since it was struck in 2006.

Industry fellows at  PTCL regularly disclose that change in the organization so far is skin deep. The absolute mess in fields of customer services, presentation and heck, even the corporate website is the reason that a makeover in these areas appear to be so ‘image changing’. The first batch of change-makers that the company is said to have hired are all from non-technology sector and the middle management at PTCL criticize that ‘no one is addressing the technical issue that actually deserve the real attention’.

However, we also need to appreciate that quantum personality changes that go deep below the skin is no easy task giving the size and responsibility – both technical and social – that lies at PTCL.

CMPak’s plans for R&D and Training Center

CMPak (former Paktel) is mixing corporate social responsibility and profits.

On September 2, CMPak won approval from the Pakistani government to secure a 15,000-sq-m plot to build a campus with integrated functions of research and development, training, and commercial use.

Sounds good!

Telenor PicShare Service Review

Blogging, telecommunication and entrepreneurship are all picking up in contemporary Pakistan. In this context, let me share a quick review I did of a recently launched value added service of Telenor. Telenor has branded the service as PicShare. The service’s back-end is based on a relatively new mobile value added service company called PixSense that has some Pakistani origin.

I have the opinion that Telenor appears to be the most data savvy among the cellular companies operating in Pakistan. Picture sharing and blogging are getting popular and it made a lot of sense for Telenor to have this service and nothing better than selecting a Pakistani back-end company to deliver the results.

Here is the review of the service itself (using Telenor EGE service on a Nokia 6300):

I signed up for the service (cost = Rs 30/mo + Data Charges for image uploads) from the main Telenor website. The menus, that were not very neatly done in terms of graphics, asked for my cell phone make and model and then showed me some bleak (blue) screenshots of the phone’s menus and explained where to go and what to select.

While I was at it, I received a confirmation email from that CONTAINED my password. Normally, this is not the industry practice as plain email is not safe from being snooped on the network.

The application was easy to install via the ‘get application’ button on the Telenor’s website. However, since the application requires a number of access permissions (communication for data transfer and user data for accessing photos and videos stored on the phone), a number of permissions were required to be set. The application itself was not smart to tell which of the permissions are missing so it was cumbersome to visit the complex tree of the application access menu and make sure that these permissions are in place. It took me five to six tries before I was there and every time the application just gave a simple error message ‘check permissions’. I guess putting the intelligence of ‘what permission is actually missing’ can enhance the usability of the application.

Once I fired up the application, the application asked for my telephone number and PicShare password. I guess the telephone number should have been automatically picked up by the application at least. I hoped that I do not have to go through this process every time I use the application and I was right. The next time I started the application and it was intelligent enough to remember my login details.

Once inside the application, it showed the sole snap that I had taken up today. The snap got uploaded automatically probably because I selected the option which allowed this. The background nature of upload did not allow to gauge the speed of the transfer. I guess that was fast. I was hoping that as a courtesy and display pro-privacy thinking, the application to tell me that so many applications have been uploaded to the web from my phone.

I hurried to my notebook to check out the results on the web and this is the Achilles heel of the Telenor PicShare in my opinion. Since the application is from PixSense, Telenor has sort of out-sourced this (or probably that was the only way of doing it) to PixSense. While connected to the Telenor’s website to access my recently uploaded photos, it resorted to frames with the inside frame being called off the Pixsense web servers ( Web developers have long abandoned use of frames inside the web pages for good reasons. Even on a wide-screen desktop of my notebook, I was getting horizontal scroll bars and the two vertical scroll bars (one for the main page itself, the other for the embedded frame) was cumbersome and for a while took me back to 1995 when frames were still being used.

The PicSense online interface for viewing and managing does not allow direct URLs so that the uploaded images cannot be used directly – a great disadvantage to those who blog. Since the service is ‘all about sharing’, it makes sense that this requirement should have been considered. The system does allow a ‘download’ button to download the jpeg image to your computer. I tried sharing one of the snaps and the presence of frames completely confused me about what was happening while the ‘sharing’ page opened up. Once the page reappeared, it gave the option to share the stuff via email or via SMS. I shared the collection by providing it another of my email addresses. An email was received moments late that contained the shared image’s thumbnail and a URL which opened after some delay but once again, with a number of frames.

My overall experience with the service and the application can be rated at 3/5 with lots of room remaining for improvement in the application logic, user notification, privacy and the main web interface on the web.

Other interested users at TGP have noted existing competition such as Twango for this service. If you have any additional review inputs, feel free to share in the comments.

IP in Telecom Core

News are trickling in about the expected expansion of CMPak’s network. This report talks about ZTE providing a 14,000 carrier radio network and a 10 million subscriber core to CMPak expected roll-out.

Given the boom (pdf) of telecom services in Pakistan, these announcements sound like run of the mill these days. However, an interesting trend to note here is the fact that the core telecommunication equipment is getting increasingly all-IP.

Telecommunication (read voice) networks have traditionally relied upon TDM circuits to work. However, with the success of the IP Technologies in the world of Internet (and the Internet itself), there is a worldwide drift from TDM to IP for everything done at these telecommunication services shops.

According to the agreement, ZTE will provide its next-generation V3 base stations, and the core network will adopt all-IP networking.

What does this mean on ground? The telecommunication power houses will increasing turn to IP networks within their core to serve their various needs – from back hauling voice from their radio networks to their core, to IMS, signaling, billing, customer care and messaging. There will be an increased incentive to build out large, high performance and high availability IP networks in the core to serve this long menu of internal services needed by the exploding telecommunication services.

Other telecom operators who have recently upgraded their networks (or are in the process) have also been putting IP capabilities in the access network to cope with the expected increased demands from cities due to a swelling subscriber population. Mobilink had installed IP (over DSL) pico cells in some part of Karachi to extend its access network in dense urban building areas. I do not have detailed information on this and it would be great if some reader could fill this up for the rest of us.

Worldcall Wireless in Karachi

Worldcall has banners up in various parts of the city announcing the availability of their wireless local loop service which was anticipated since May 2007. The advertisements say free local call, free nationwide calls (presumably on their own network), 85 paisa per minute to US/UK and 10 paisa/min for WLL based Internet. The service is running off Huawei’s equipment.

CDMA based WLL services have already seen earlier players like Telecard and PTCL and have drawn a mixed response in terms of service standard quality. The ‘free on-net’ calling phenomenon which was triggered by Telecard (and is now being followed by Worldcall too) has found some loyal subscribers. I regularly spot shop owners in various localities of the city keeping a ‘Go CDMA’ phone as part of their communication arsenal and most of the time, the end user is doing the ‘least cost routing’ – finding the service that provides the cheapest service to reach the particular end number.

However, with a very high/healthy tele-density that is regularly being cited in anything good is to be said about Pakistan and a stiff competition and friction between DSL providers, it looks like that Worldcall as a late entrant in this digital communication race in Karachi would be having a tough time at best.

Performance of the reported availability of EvDO services on this network would be worth observing. If you have a review of the service, please post it in the comments.

CMPak to cover AJK

AJK and Northern Areas of Pakistan is a lucrative telecoms market due to the historic absence of basic fixed telephone (wired) and a high remittance-rich local population with strong connection in the United Kingdom and other European countries.

This area was served by a semi-military, semi-government telecommunication organization that goes  by the name of SCO – Special Communication Organization which used to had exclusive rights of telecommunication services in the region. Of late, SCO had collaborated with various companies for WLL, GSM and Internet (DSL & Dialup) to offer these services in the region.

Telekom blog is reporting on this further:

CMPak, the wireless operator formerly known as Paktel, has confirmed that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has amended its licence to allow it to provide wireless services in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and the Northern Areas (NA).

According to the CEO of CMPak, the new licenses will allow the company to extend its coverage to the scenic northern parts of the country. In February 2007 Millicom International Cellular (MIC) sold its 88.86% stake in Paktel to China Mobile Communications Corp for USD284 million in cash. In May 2007 China Mobile acquired the outstanding shares from the Arfeen Group (10%) and others. CMPak has embarked on an aggressive network expansion plan since the acquisition, with China Mobile expected to spend USD400 million in 2007 in expanding the network.


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