Internet-based LL Services

Fellow blogger and friend Babar Bhatti has complained about the problems he is facing in using Braintel’s local loop services (probably from out there in US). A reader has commented on this citing a PTA ban on such operations by the local loop operators in Pakistan.

The main issue here is the ability of the LL operator to replace the traditional copper for its end user or the expensive 1900 Mhz WLL frequencies for its end user with the ‘Internet cloud’. It is technically possible but the use of Internet for voice problem had its own fair share of cloudiness. At the center of this debate is the use of the word ‘long distance’ – whether it is to be taken physically or network-wise.

When last LDI/LL licenses were issued, the LL license itself was a cheap affair – though the spectrum (both for 1900 Mhz and 3.5 Ghz) was auctioned at high prices. At that time, a number of Internet savvy people – Brain included – took the LL license only banking on new VoIP technologies to come to their rescue later.

A few VoIP technology companies (a cross between operators and technology vendors if you will) had been constantly chasing the smaller LL operators (as described above) evangelizing the use of VoIP in local loop operations where the ‘affinity to local numbers’ is the actual ‘good sold’ and the profit comes in from volumes of such ‘numbers’ beings sold worldwide at fixed monthly rates (but not actually always being used).

These VoIP technology companies met some success during the past couple of years with a number of LL operators signing up them either as partners or just technology vendors. At that time, cellular industry was priming and people, operators and the regulator somehow had little time to attend to this possibly controversial issue.

Now that the market is nearing a tele-density of over 50% and market consolidation has started, these by-issues will get more attention (and probably get more debated).

PTA’s clarification on use of VoIP (available from PTA’s website and discussed on some related online forums) is of little help as it leaves room for guessing by the readers.

My personal position here is that given the non-deterministic nature of public Internet (specially when the bandwidth is not directly coming from a T1 operator) as a transport mechanism for real time traffic, such ‘Internet-glued’ LL services should be allowed – they will always be placed at number 2 in terms of voice quality and deterministic performance. Such services could be declared a new class of service with clear requirement of informing end consumers about emergency services not working on them as well as possible degraded voice performance due to third party packet networks that happen to lie between the end networks. Given a considerable population of expatriate Pakistanis around the world, these services stand a fairly good chance of catching on in popularity and can earn some part of the much needed forex for country by the local companies offering such services worldwide.

Broadband Penetration – MoITT, USF @ Work

Universal Service Fund (USF) is the company formed to make use of the USF money that PTA has been generating out of the booming telecoms market of Pakistan. So far, USF has worked towards using its funds for the spread of voice services in the under-served markets of Pakistan. Of late, Ministry of Information Technology & Telecommunication has intended to guide USF to do the same towards increasing broadband penetration too.

USF, after some initial work, has concluded that there are no particular areas that could be defined as ‘under-served’ in terms of Pakistan and rather the entire Pakistan is under-served. USF has now asked MoITT to pass a ‘determination’ towards the same fact allowing USF to utilize the funds anywhere and everywhere in Pakistan.

MoITT has published a 39 page study document on the web which seeks to establish this fact (that the entire Pakistan is under-served in broadband services). A consultation session was held in Islamabad yesterday to discuss this matter with the industry. The proceedings and details of the session are still to come out but here are my initial takes on the document and its contents:

The  major conclusion points of the documents are:

  • Pakistan’s broadband penetration is very low
  • Currently there are around 100K Broadband subscribers which need to be taken to 1.6 million by 2010 (1% of population)
  • This low penetration is earning bad scores for us under the WSIS measuring criteria & there is a strong need to improve the same
  • Three approaches have been suggested for the GoP’s intervention in this ‘dismal’ state of broadband affairs:
    • No intervention – leave it to market; slow broadband growth expected
    • Bundle with Basic Services – only rural areas will benefit; existing broadband provides will loose
    • Tackle issue with a new format – dedicated efforts are expected to yield better results; divided in various phases

The document assumes or maintains that fixed broadband is a dwindling trend and wireless broadband will finally prevail (page 23). While this is true for the last mile domain, the infrastructure is ALWAYS wired (read fiber). The guys at the MoITT need to be pointed to this omission in consideration. Pakistan need to have a good wired infrastructure before we can decide which of the two last miles options (wired or wireless) is good for us.

The study also repeatedly mentions the similarity between low tele-density and low broadband penetration. However, the applications/demand side difference between the two (voice and data) is repeatedly ignored. While it is true that the gap between 2.7% tele-density (from where our telecoms boom started off) and current 50% tele-density was one of the reasons for the boom, it was the application (voice) that was ready to exploit this gap. In the case of broadband, a similar gap exists and this gap is what the study is considering as an opportunity. However, as obvious, the difference between our last success (in cellular voice) and current challenge is that of application – do we have compelling applications that will drive the growth that can ride this gap?

The document also does not considers demand creation at all. While supply end enhancements (by way of USF subsidies towards network deployments etc) are more than welcome, a significant portion of the efforts must go towards demand creation activities. Mandatory use of electronic facilities in the business circles, tax cuts for ISPs interconnecting with each other, financial benefits to private TV channels to host streaming servers inside Pakistan, creation of public/open Internet Exchanges etc are all example of such efforts.

PakistanTelecom & Economy Indicators

Amir Rajput has posted an interesting analysis of the ‘Telecommunication Indicators’ recently published by PTA. The figures (economic_growth.pdf) in the analysis conclude that most of the economic growth being recorded in Pakistan is attributed to the Telecom sector.

CMPak’s Investements – Insomania for Mobilink?

AFP is carrying a report that mentions CMPak’s resolve to invest another $500 million in its Pakistan operations. Rural penetration is being cited as one of the main components of the expansion thrust:

World’s biggest telecom operator China mobile having 320 million subscribers in China plans to invest another $ 500 million next year as the investment atmosphere is very conducive here. Executive Director China Mobile Pakistan Sikandar Naqvi Thursday told CNBC channel that a sum of $ 1.2 billion has already been invested in Pakistan.

This, read along with the statement from the China Mobile Chairman that China Mobile sees their Pakistan operations as a valuable experience for its subsequent international ventures, will surely put the existing big boys of cellular services in Pakistan like Mobilink and Ufone on high-alert and may be give them sleepless nights.

Pakistan Post Plans Paper Email Service

Pakistan Post is reportedly facing a 20% volume decrease every year. This could directly be attributed to the penetration of modern communication means such as cellular telephony and Internet.  The state owned organization is now planning a new service that would allow users to send messages to their loved ones in remote areas using a website of Pakistan Post. The message will than be sent via Pakistan Post’s traditional network of paper mail to these areas.

India launched this service (called ePost) 4 years ago.  So much for innovative thinking.

CMPak – South Goes to Ericsson

Ericsson is announcing that CMPak (formerly Paktel) has awarded its expansion project in the south of Pakistan to the company. Ericsson will provide GSM and microwave transmission network equipment to CMPak for its expansion project that will cover 312 cities of Sindh and Baluchistan that form the southern part of Pakistan.

CMPak has awarded the expansion project of northern wing of its network  to Alcatel-Lucent that we covered here. 

The news bodes well for the industry in terms of more jobs in the sector particularly in the outsourced contract projects segment. The news also mean that increased network capacity will drive down the cost for the consumer due to increased competition and force the cellular operators to focus more on value added services on their network beyond just voice.

Let us hope Mr Leghari can lure in cellular manufacturers to start making terminals in Pakistan so that the import bill for these terminals can be minimized

Weird Stats

A news item in Daily Times says that Pakistan imported cellular phones worth around $728,000 in the last nine month which according to the news article is 28% more than what we imported last year during the same period.

Umm..sounds strange. The reported figures are not even close to a million dollars. Either the report used the figures of just one vendor or it really got confused with the facts. With an average cost of $100 (Rs 6,000), this figure means that we imported just around 7,280 mobiles? Quite unlikely.

With the average joe Teefa on the street buying a new cellular phone worth $60 ~ $100, no local production of cellular terminals, PTA complaining about insufficient record keeping of SIM issuance and millions of users being added to the networks month by month, even with tax and paperwork evasion, the figures must at least be in tens of millions of dollars.

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