MOVING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
IT has left no facets of our lives untouched which also includes education
By SYED M. ASLAM
July 30 - Aug 05, 2001
Financial managers, irrespective of national governments they work for, are expected to strike a fine balance between generous incentives to lure investment and protecting the interests of consumers/users. Protecting the interests of investors at the expense of consumers could mean the withdrawal of public goodwill which democratic governments of the developed world can hardly afford to lose.
In principle, this should, and is, also true for Pakistan. In practice, however, consumer protection remains an alien concept to the policy makers of Pakistan if arbitrary price increases are any indications. The policies seem never to reflect the feedback and genuine demands of the consumers/users despite being having a direct impact on their pockets. One must not be misled by advertisements inviting public opinion on increase in electricity tariff or transport fares in recent years as it serves more as a pretext to give an illusion of public participation for a decision already made by anyone else but the people.
A most appropriate example is that of the latest national passion and pastime, the IT. The all-out governmental support, and push, remain restricted to incentives accorded to the corporate sector — software houses, importers of hardware and accessories, tariff reduction for the Internet service providers, tax free income for faculty and staff and academics, etc. The catalysts of the proposed IT revolution — the users — seem to draw the least attention from the policy makers good only for token support from the government. Yes, more cities are connected to universal internet access compared to some two-and-half-dozen just a year ago but the internet tariffs for end users remain on the high side in a country reeling from purchasing power dipping to an all time low.
Busy as they are, the policy makers of Pakistan should start paying attention to safeguard the interests of users if they are genuinely interested to make IT the backbone of national economy. Denying users a say in matters which affect them directly — be it the quality and price of internet tariff, education or training, hardware and software in a market which is highly unregulated — can deliver a fatal blow to the proposed IT revolution before it even lifted off the ground.
The state-owned Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) has reduced the internet charges by 55-60 per cent during last year. However, the ISPs justify passing off just a part of it, an average 17-20 per cent, to the end users on the pretext that PTCL's service charges are too high irrespective of the size of the ISP.
Not only the internet tariff for the ISPs are on the high side but the quality of PTCL's service leaves much to be desired primarily due to induction of latest technology as its backbone still comprise the outdated copper wire incapable of bearing high loads results in frequent disconnections at the discomfort and cost of the users. This is primarily so as PTCL treats each internet connectivity routed through the number 131 unlike its counterparts in the other part of the world which accord it a toll free status. However, the previous government abolished the multimetring charges in early 1999 or else the internet users would be paying a very heavy price to get connected.
This is all the more important as noisy telephone lines, poor quality ISPs in addition to heavy traffic load on a limited PTCL backbone resulting in frequent disconnections force internet users dial the ISP many times during an hour. This in turn costs a user heavily in telephone bills discouraging many to use the internet thus severely undermining the government's energies to promote the IT culture in the country.
Ejaz Husain, the founder president of Internet Association of Pakistan, a non-government and non-profit organisation promoting internet and intranet literacy in the country, blames the PTCL's monopoly as the single top detriment of the substandard service. International standard calls for using the T-1 internet connectivity — 1.5 mb — mostly by non-commercial or residential users throughout the world. However, most of the ISPs including those considered good are using T-1 connectivity of 2 mb for all purposes be it commercial or otherwise. In addition, even 2 mb is not fully available to the users as the ISPs also run their hosting servers on it.
Just how does we fair compared to the international standard is obvious from the following example. As already mentioned local ISPs are using T-1 connectivity which when multiplied by 37 equals one T-3 (PTCL can accommodate only T-3 connectivity). T-3 multiplied by 15 equals one OC-3 which further multiplied by 15 equals one Tier 1 or single onnet backbone. Tier1 is used mostly by the big ISPs in the developed world and its users are the likes of all famous Yahoo. That's the reason why internet users in the other parts of the world are hooked to watch television on the net. This highlights the inferior internet connectivity available here in Pakistan. In addition, Ejaz said, 45-55 mb backbone of the PTCL is shared by some six dozens ISPs, and their sublets, to put an enormous load on an already inadequate infrastructure.
The problem is further complicated by the fact that while there are restrictions on the actual numbers of users on the ISPs there is no restriction on the number of users they can register. Thus the T-1 connectivity, already eating up to one-fourth of 2 mb to hosting servers and systems of the ISPs and leaving even a lesser load available to internet users is further aggravated by the large number of registered users. Ejaz said that the ISPs should be instructed not to register more than a fixed number of users to reduce the load for the benefit of the overall users. In addition, he said that there should be a tight control on quality of services and specification of equipments, like servers and modems, installed by every single ISP operating in the country to safeguard the interest of the internet users to help ensure that the ISPs increase their standard and quality of service. The absence of any restriction by the PTCL on modems is encouraging the ISPs to install inferior quality modems which when heated result in disconnections, one of the primary reasons inconveniencing the internet users day in and day out here.
So what could be done to improve the situation? Ejaz sees PTCL monopoly as the main hindrance to private sector investment. Inducting latest technology to bring telecommunication infrastructure and the backbone requires massive investment which can only come from the private sector, be it foreign or local. It is imperative that such giants as AT&T, MCI and UUNet should be allowed to setup ISPs in Pakistan to help induct the much needed investment and technology to promote a real IT culture in the country. Can anyone imagine the IT revolution possible without the mass internet use?
Besides overloading an already diminished bandwidth by registering more users than they can accommodate, ISPs also resort to installing specifically designed softwares which disconnect the users already connected to let those waiting to use their lines. This practise borders on fraud and though no ISP would ever accept it for reasons much too obvious to understand the phenomenon has become all too familiar with the internet users across the country.
Easy access to a reliable, efficient and speedy internet connectivity is a pre-requisite of developing IT culture without which PC penetration, the real barometer of IT growth, can hardly be expected to increase — at least in the long run. Yes, the awareness about IT has almost reached a saturation point and yes the number of PC population and internet users have registered a growth during the last one year but all this can only be sustained by improving the quality, service and last but least the prices of hard and software and internet service for which effective measures have yet to be taken. It's time the policy makers should wake up to the challenges preceding the awareness they have already been able to create.
The policy makers should now look beyond offering financial incentives to the businesses related to IT alone. The drastic reduction in internet tariff is benefitting the software companies, IT firms and the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), private sector educational institutions and universities in the public sector. The majority of the internet users not belonging to above categories should also be included.
It is also time to ensure that the benefits of the duty-free import of PCs and accessories should trickle to the retail level to encourage growth in the mainstream.
Much, however, remains to be done to encourage the PC penetration in the seventh- or sixth most populated country of the world. Abolishment of import duty without monitoring the prices — be it of new or used PCs imported by the container loads — would only mean profits for a handful of traders without increasing the PC penetration.
Without undermining the importance of universal internet access, reduction in bandwidth rates, duty-free import of computer hardware and accessories it is time to look beyond them all as they primarily benefit the software firms, selective groups of students and ISPs which are neither required to nor interested in passing the benefit to internet users. While ISPs are left to dictate their terms on the retail internet tariffs, the users remain outside the pale of decision making left at the mercy of the ISPs. This definitely should change.
Despite the abolishment of the duty the PC prices still remain much prohibitive to the majority of population the purchasing power of which is on the decline with each passing day. What good the expansion of universal internet access across the country be if there is no real growth in the PC base?
The government has to still make good on its repeated promises of developing PCs and components locally. Whatever little local hardware production is taking place is restricted to screw-driver line assembly of foreign hardware and components with a local name tag on it. The real development has yet to take place and there are no indications that it will take place in the near future.
PC penetration currently stands at a low 1.5-1.6 million and calls for strong annual growth repeatedly. The number of internet connections remain stagnant at acutely low level of 250,000. Yes much remains to be done.
IT has left no facets of our lives untouched which also includes education. Not so long ago basic degrees such as Bachelors and Masters meant a passport for half decent future. This was replaced by medical and engineering degrees and later by the CA and till few years ago by the MBA. Today these degrees are regarded as, well what else but basic education as medical, engineering, accounting and business professionals are all being influenced by the IT which supplements and upgrades all these categories of education. IT literacy has become the need which encompasses these and all other professions.
Despite the tremendous interest which it draws IT education and training remains a highly unregulated in Pakistan. The IT institutes of all sorts, quality and price have mushroomed in the localities across the country as if overnight. IT education is taking the biggest slice of the public and private spending far exceeding that on the purchase of hardware or software exports. No doubt it has attracted so many unscrupulous elements interested only to make a killing without being responsible for the quality of education they are imparting.
Unsuspecting students driven more by IT zest than anything else are an easy prey to these institutes offering courses without any check on quality, acceptance and/or demand. Many institutes are offering training which is either become entirely obsolete or no more needed. The majority of these institutes hire unqualified and untrained teachers which are only marginally better than the students they are suppose to teach. The lack of check has resulted in huge concentration of IT institutes which are answerable to no one to keep churning out inferior IT manpower at a great national cost.
It is imperative for the PTCL to enhance its backbone and private and International companies such as AT&T, MCI and UUNet should be allowed to setup ISPs in Pakistan "Independently".
In addition, internet tariffs should be further reduced and there should be a tight quality control in terms of services and Service equipment installed by every ISP to help ISP's increase their service standards.
It is time to review our priorities. For instance, using the internet to create employment. Is it really possible? Yes, says Ejaz. How? by cutting operational costs and routine business expenditure. Even established companies are transferring their businesses to home and preferring to operate through Internet rather than by maintaining a physically presence. Internet today enables one not only to sell one's own or someone else's products and services across the globe without having to bear heavy communication expenses, traveling, and huge investments.