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The Internet in Pakistan

Pakistan has yet to see a concentrated boost in internet access and use beyond its major urban centers. Even within the country’s more affluent urban areas, internet use is far from pervasive. The International Telecommunications Union lists the number of internet users in Pakistan overall at about 18.5 million in a population of almost 181 million. [1] Within the 2008 BBC survey used here only about 3 percent of respondents reported being an internet user. [2] Nearly all of these respondents resided in urban areas and a majority of them reported having access to the internet at home.
Although household access to the internet continues to be too expensive for a vast majority, 10 percent of respondents said they do have access to the internet “anywhere”. Out of all internet users in the survey 38 percent did not have home access to the internet, revealing that a large portion of users are dependent on accessing the internet at work, school or an internet café.
Chart 1

Just as there is a form of economic divide between the different provinces of Pakistan, there is also a digital divide. From province to province there is a substantial difference in connectivity and fiber optic infrastructure, see Chart 2.
Chart 2

Urban Sindhis have a higher level of access (“anywhere” and at home) than any other urban-rural grouping to the internet or to a computer – but internet access does not equal use. In fact, even though 17 percent have web access at home and 34 percent have access anywhere, regular internet use is just ten percent.
Education plays an important role as an indicator for the development of e-skills, with a secondary education acting as a key indicator. Even though within the survey only 6 percent of respondents with a secondary education are regular (monthly) internet user, they make up some 42 percent of those who are regular users. Income also plays an obvious role in whether in individual is an internet users, as the high cost of home access continues to be prohibitive.

The Internet as a Political Tool

Despite the relative lack of internet connectivity overall in Pakistan, the medium has been particularly influential during time of political crisis. In November 2007, during the Musharaff regime’s declared state of emergency, which created a media wide black out, Pakistan’s intelligentsia and growing middle class turned to the internet for news and organizing capabilities.
Much of the political organizing that took place was on college campuses. Attesting to the importance of internet access in universities, as home access continues to be too expensive for most. Online activities took the form of new blogs dedicated to protest groups and as Facebook groups looking to galvanize student bodies and to spread the word about flash protests. Also driving the democracy movement online were some of the banned private TV channels, including Geo, Aaj, and ARY. Once these channels were banned reporters and news anchors continued to film news stories and then stream the video over the web keeping Pakistanis aware of recent developments.
Expatriate Pakistanis were also able to use the internet to organize protests in places like Boston and London hoping to raise awareness about the regime’s repressive measures and place pressure on foreign governments. [3] The breaking of the media blackout through online means not only helped to keep the momentum of the democracy movement during the state of emergency, but also helped to awaken a population to the potential of the internet as a political tool.

The Pakistan Universal Service Fund

A dial-up internet connection continues to be the central means of accessing the internet for a large majority of Pakistan’s internet subscribers. However, due to sector deregulation and increased demand broadband subscribership more than doubled from 168,082 in June 2008 to 413,809 in June 2009. In 2004 the PTA deregulated the information and communication technology (ICT) sector creating considerable competition both within the mobile communications and internet service sectors, bringing with it a substantial amount of new investment to Pakistan. By the end of 2006 the ICT sector accounted for 54 percent, about 1.9 billion, of all foreign direct investment (FDI) coming into Pakistan. However, since 2006 FDI in the telecom sector has progressively declined reaching only $814 million in 2009. [4]
However, this decline in FDI has not limited growth in the broadband market. Three companies, Pakistan Telecommunications Co. Ltd, Wateen and WorldCall, have a combined share of over 79 percent of the broadband market. A large part of this sector’s new growth is being pushed by the demand for wireless broadband. Wateen a wireless provider added some 47,000 new subscribers between June 2008 and June 2009, more than double the subscribership of 2008. [5]
Pakistan’s universal service fund (USF), established by the Ministry of Information Technology in 2006, has worked to expand broadband service both for public institutions and for society at large. In January 2008 the USF gave approval of a new broadband program, which subsidizes the expansion of broadband service to underserved areas. The initial phases of the program targets specific underserved urban areas. An important short term goal of the program is reach a 1 percent penetration by the end of 2010. However, by June 2009 broadband penetration had only reached about 0.26 percent. [6]
Contracts were signed in late April 2009 for implementation of the pilot stage of the broadband program located in Faisalabad, a city in the Punjab province. The project, according to the latest project update, accessed April 2010, almost 18,000 new connections had been made, with a long term goal of 89,000. [7] Beyond simply adding to the number of possible connections a community has access to, another central goal of the USF’s broadband program is to connect thousands of community and education broadband centers.
The education broadband centers (EBC) are due to be set up within local high schools and colleges. Within the Faisalabad pilot project 250 EBCs and 100 community broadband centers are scheduled to be built. [8] Recognized that it is difficult to great a sustainable network of broadband community telecentres the USF is continuing to work on different models based on international best practices. [9] The effectiveness of the broadband program will be partially measured on the sustainabiliity of these community telecentres, as they can potentially provide internet access to the the millions of Pakistani who can not afford a computer.
Phase One of the broadband service is set to be extended in three regions; the Hazara district in the Northwest Frontier Province, a number of cities in Sind province, and within areas surrounding Multan, a district in the Punjab province. In 2009, contracts were issued for work to begin in each of the three regions and the USF has already begun accepting bids for projects in the Phase Two regions. All of the regions where broadband service is being extended in Phase Two already have some service to dial-up and wireless technologies, which speaks to the limited capacity of Pakistan’s telecommunications infrastructure and the high cost of implementing such a project in rural areas. In the spring of 2010 the USF began accepting bids for Phase Three projects in the Northwest Frontier Province. [10]

[1] “ITU ICT Eye-Internet indicators”. International Telecommunication Union. Geneva, Switzerland. Accessed April 2010. “Internet users is based on nationally reported data. In some cases, surveys have been carried out that give a more precise figure for the number of Internet users. However, surveys differ across countries with respect to age and frequency of use.”
[2] A user defined here is a respondent who had accessed the internet in at least the past month.
[3] Kripalani, Manjeet. “E-Resistance Blooms in Pakistan”. Business Week. 12 November 2007. and “2009 Annual Report: Chapter 3 Sector Economy”. Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. Islamabad, Pakistan. Accessed April 2010.
[4] Hashim, Shumaila Munir, Akhtar and Afnan Khan. “Foreign Direct Investment in Telecommunication Sector of Pakistan: An Empirical Analysis”. Journal of Managerial Services Volume III No. I p.111-123.
[5] “2009 Annual Report: Chapter 6: Broadband and Value-added services”. Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. Islamabad, Pakistan. Islamabad, Pakistan. Accessed April 2010.
[6] Ibid.
[7] “Pilot Project: Faisalabad Telecom Region”. Universal Service Fund: Pakistan. Accessed April 2010.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Iftikhar, Parvez. “Meeting the challenge of climate change in developing economies– an example from Pakistan”. Paper for Publication at World Telecom 2009. Panel Discussion- ICTs and climate change in developing economies.
[10] Universal Service Fund. Islamabad, Pakistan..

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