The Tube Trouble and Why its a Good News

The You Tube blocking (orders by PTA to ISPs can be found here) in Pakistan has taken the local blogosphere by the storm – for obvious reason. The news was broken and extensively discussed at various local mailing lists.

The highly sticky video website contributes as much as 1/10th of the entire Internet bandwidth according to some estimates. That’s a crazy big statement.

Every technology blog that has any Pakistani connection has a post about this major disruptive development. While most of the fellows are obviously mad on this blocking, my take is that we might be better off having this issue. The persistent problem (of Internet censorship done the wrong way) is not being intermittently flashed to us any more – instead, this event throws it right into our faces.

That Internet censorship is bad and useless is an established fact but that it happens worldwide in both developing and developed worlds is even more established fact. In the absence of compelling Internet applications in Pakistan, Internet remains the sole killer application for the broadband mass uptake the government appears to be so concerned about.

Hence, given all the boom that Pakistan is experiencing right now (and hopefully after the recent elections results of which have so far pleasantly surprised both Pakistanis and the rest of the world), it is important that we ensure that Internet remains the platform that is relevant to the population and that the Internet consumption keeps an upward consumption trend. The system needs to graduate on this front and move towards improving our infrastructure to be able to keep up with the bare minimum implementations of the various rulings given under the law of the land by the higher courts (which, no doubt, need a big and continuous help that will help them understand the technical intricacies of the cyberspace).

This blockage is huge in terms of impact. Everyone will feel it. From the end users to the media companies and micro content producers to the civil society relying on the powers of You Tube and packet video prevalence, everyone is going to talk about it. Now is the time stop using Cisco ACLs and use layer 4 solutions where the filtering must happen.

I believe this will force the PTA and the government (and the trigger happy PTCL’s PIE) to upgrade their infrastructures so that the delicate balance between civil liberties and our societal sensitivities is well kept.

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:

TheĀ  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.