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Pakistan moving towards digital future under CPEC plan

The Information Technology industry of Pakistan is expecting rapid growth under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. CPEC has already boosted the infrastructure of Pakistan which has pushed the IT industry remarkably. The ongoing scheme under CPEC includes, Construction of Cross Border OFC System between China and Pakistan for International Connectivity of Voice/Data Traffic (SCO) and provision of Seamless GSM Coverage along KKH for proposed Gwadar Kashighar Economic Corridor in Gilgit-Baltistan (SCO).

The building of roads, ports, dams, connecting cities, has provided a much needed boost to the economy, which will bring huge benefits to the Information Technology industry of Pakistan too. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is part of China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project, is bringing total of US$75 billion investments, and this will also give a boost to the local IT and telecom industry of Pakistan.

The government is making all efforts to enhance exports of Pakistan’s IT sector and has extended major incentives to the IT Industry which include a variety of tax exemptions, permission to operate foreign exchange accounts, profit repatriation. The government is also paying attention to the capacity building of the IT sector which includes, among others, international certification programs, internship placements. Extensive attention is being paid to the marketing of Pakistan’s IT sector. Since 2017, Pakistan Software Export Board (PSEB) participated in 5 international events with 21 companies generating hundreds of leads and helping project Pakistan’s image.

A new, upgraded cross-border fibre optic cable will address multiple challenges faced by China and Pakistan. A complete overhaul of Pakistan’s communications framework appears to be on the cards in the Long Term Plan (LTP) of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Intentions for a revamped communications framework, includes components such as a fibre optic cable connecting Pakistan and China, a new submarine landing station for internet traffic flow, and digital TV for all. A plan is envisioned to span up to 15 years, starting in 2016 and concluding in 2030. A new, upgraded fibre optic cable network spans Pakistan and crosses the border to connect directly with China. As outlined in the master plan, the cross-border fibre optic cable will address multiple challenges faced by China and Pakistan.

New submarine cable landing station at Gwadar Port

China will handle the expected increase in communication between the two countries. With the strategic cooperation there will be the need to establish fast, reliable connectivity between Europe and Asia. The new network will be useful to Pakistan by improving internet penetration and increasing speed, especially in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, regions where internet connectivity has ranged from poor to non-existent. The LTP envisions a plan to remedy the danger of internet disruption due to any accident at Pakistan’s only submarine cable landing station.

Currently, the undersea fibre optic cables that carry all internet traffic connect to one landing station located at Karachi. A major accident at the station can result in disruption of the internet across the entire country. A new submarine cable landing station at Gwadar Port is planned to be built to enhance security of the international communications network in Pakistan. According to the plan, the Gwadar station would cover an area of about 10,000 square metres. A feasibility study in the short-term will be followed up by construction from 2021-2030. The terrestrial Digital TV with a network covering over 90 percent of Pakistan’s population is another key project of the LTP set to be completed by 2020.

Digital TV system

Chinese enterprises will provide Pakistan with Digital Terrestrial Multimedia Broadcast (DTMB) technology to enable the switch to Digital TV. This is an indication of Beijing and Islamabad’s to bring an advanced technology like China’s DTMB that allows broadcasting in standard definition and high definition to deliver a larger quantity of TV channels at higher quality. If the plan is implemented fully, it will be a major upgrade from terrestrial TV broadcasting in Pakistan. It will also likely have great impact on the media industry, changing revenue models and programming. According to the LTP, the project is divided into four phases; phase one covering Islamabad and surrounding areas; phase two covering other major cities, such as Karachi and Lahore; phase three entails coverage of other densely populated areas, while the final phase aims to cover all of Pakistan, including remote areas.

In the LTP, Digital TV is noted to be “a cultural transmission carrier” that will introduce Chinese culture to Pakistan. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and China’s National Development and Reform Commission had signed a MoU on implementing China’s DTMB network in Pakistan. PTV and ZTE, a multinational telecommunications equipment and systems company headquartered in China, also signed an agreement to carry out pilot projects to implement DTMB in Islamabad and other areas.

According to the CPEC website, a pilot project of DTMB has been completed at a cost of $2 million. The demonstration project is currently with Chinese side and is being processed.

 

Connectivity is paired with governance in the master plan, which envisions the construction of a large-scale national data centre for centralized management of e-government data and safe network operation. The facility is stated to be built in northern Pakistan between 2016 and 2020. It will occupy a total area of 8,000 square metres.

The centre could provide many services and solutions to the government and other key organizations in terms of hosting important data, managing communications, providing internet access, assisting in surveillance, implementing IT applications and delivering online services to citizens. In the long term, the project entails the construction of backup data centres to be built in other cities.

Additionally, the LTP says a network for e-government will be built to establish channels from Islamabad to the provincial governments. Public access to government departments and agencies, including metropolitan departments of different towns and cities will be increased.

Last year, the National Telecommunication Corporation (NTC) inaugurated the ‘first ever’ National Data Centre of Pakistan in Islamabad at an event organised by Huawei. In March this year, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Centre of Excellence was inaugurated in Islamabad.

The communications plan also focuses on urban security, as network infrastructure will be used to prevent criminal and terrorist activities, “through sophisticated monitoring, smart alert systems and visual command and dispatch”. This will involve the installation of surveillance cameras, explosive detectors and scanners covering major roads, sensitive areas and crowded localities.

The information from these devices will be transmitted in real-time to a control centre where staff will monitor, record and take action when necessary. Listing Peshawar as a starting point, the project will extend to the major cities based on its success. The LTP also identifies an added advantage of the project i.e. assisting in the establishment of a platform to manage public services in safe cities such as digital city management, road transportation management and other systems.

Video surveillance project in Sindh

In August, the Sindh government announced the launch of a ‘video surveillance project’ that would become part of Karachi’s Safe City project. Costing Rs10 billion, a total of 10,000 high-definition cameras will be installed at 2,000 spots in Karachi. A plan has also been drawn up to make Quetta and Gwadar safe cities at a cost of Rs10 billion.

In the Long Term Plan (LTP) capacity building and talent cultivation in information and communication technologies will include training 2,000 professionals, of who 200 will go to China, while the rest will be trained at Chinese training centers in Pakistan. It is envisioned that the construction of a China-Pakistan Technical Training Center will form the training base for the telecommunication/technology industry. In the long term, the local training centre may be built into a college or university.

In case a training centre cannot be built, the fall-back plan is to have Chinese communication enterprises and Pakistani universities jointly provide technical training.

A sort of mechanism will also be established to train Pakistani technicians with China’s resources, such as training at Chinese institutions of higher learning and institutions of communication equipment enterprises.

Exchanges will also extend to top management of Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology and China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to share experience and achieve common development across multiple fields.

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