DIGITAL REVOLUTION

FOZIA ISHAQUE (fozia.ishaque@hotmail.com)
Dec 10 - 16, 2007

Information and communication technology is one of the key drivers that have shaped the modern world. It is a major catalyst of globalization that has brought the world closer together, enabling people around the world to benefit from the opportunities of increasing economic integration.

Pakistan in recent years has made remarkable progress by way of reform and the resultant growth of the information and communication technology sector. We are moving forward with great speed to bridge the digital divide in the country by improving access to information and communication technology for low-income groups. The telecom sector has gone through rapid growth, showing the greatest impact of policy reforms. In a few years, this sector has reached new heights. Teledensity has increased from three per cent in 2000 to 40 per cent in 2007, which is the highest in South Asia. As a result, the total number of fixed and mobile subscribers has reached 67 million, with a major contribution coming from the mobile sector. About 22 million youngsters are already connected on mobile networks. Pakistan has already crossed the Asian connectivity average, surpassing India and Sri Lanka and getting close to China. Pakistan continues to be one of the fastest growing telecom markets in the world.

Investments in the telecom infrastructure and consequent improvement in services are having positive spill-over effects on the economy. In the fully liberalised and deregulated environment of Pakistan, telecom and information technology companies are expanding their networks, business and customer base. The telecom sector attracted foreign investment on license and infrastructure of over nine billion dollars during the last five years, and another four billion dollars are expected on roll-out by 2010.

The expansion of the telecom sector has created employment opportunities in the country through linkages in the value chain such as franchise, sale, promotion, infrastructure and equipment. The benefits of reform and growth have also trickled down to the general public and consumers through substantial reduction in prices for both fixed and mobile services. Information and communication technology is an engine of social and economic development with a cross-cutting impact on all sectors of the economy and society at large. It is a keystone of the knowledge economy and a critical input for gaining competitive advantage in the current global environment. For countries like Pakistan, it opens a window of opportunity to move into the value-added information and knowledge-based economy. The rapid growth of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) and innovation in digital systems represent a revolution that has fundamentally changed the way people think, behave, communicate, work and earn their livelihood. This digital revolution has forged new ways to create knowledge, educate people and disseminate information. It has restructured the way the world conducts economic and business practices, runs governments and engages politically. It has provided for the speedy delivery of humanitarian aid and healthcare, and a new vision for environmental protection. It has even created new avenues for entertainment and leisure.

However like other sectors of the economy, reforms in the information technology and telecom sector have been underpinned by the principles of liberalization, privatization, deregulation, separation of policy, regulation and operations and transparent business processes.

As access to information and knowledge is a prerequisite to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the digital revolution has the capacity to improve living standards for millions of people around the world. Moreover, better communication between peoples helps resolve conflicts and attain a more peaceful world. That, at any rate, is the theory put forward by advocates of the Information Society. The reality, however, is that there is a huge digital divide that separates those who are connected to ICTs and those who have no access to the benefits of the new technologies. This happens across international frontiers as well as within communities where people are separated by economic and knowledge barriers. Pakistan, for its part, has called for a global accord and partnership so that the fruits of technology are evenly spread. Islamabad is engaged in harnessing digital technology for the advancement of Pakistan.

A significant portion of Pakistan's limited resources have been earmarked to build IT infrastructure. These efforts are aimed at promoting computer literacy and widening IT applications in education and public sector management. But Pakistan needs the support of the international community to achieve these goals. The digital divide is a multi-dimensional phenomenon that separates people from people and countries from countries. The speed of global technological and economic transformation demands concerted global action. Pakistan has stressed the need for creating an information society which embraces everyone. Poor countries are threatened with structural irrelevance associated with their technological obsolescence

We are all familiar with the extraordinary power of information communication technologies. From trade to telemedicine, from education to the environment, we have in our hands, in our desktops, in the skies above, the power to improve the standards of living for millions of people on this planet. This requires the political will of world leaders, as well as the support of the business sector and community groups. The leaders of several poor African countries have been pushing for rich nations to provide funds for giving people in developing nations greater access to private computers. But their demands continue to be thwarted by the failure of the governments of rich nations to agree on the creation of a special fund to help bridge the digital divide. The issue has been put on the backburner by the US and other Western countries.

Every country sees that we need new resources to bridge the digital divide, but Western countries remain dubious about whether another, separate international fund is needed. Many poor countries need the fund to benefit from the digital revolution. Information and communication technology has indeed revolutionized modern life in many ways. Yet for millions of people around the globe, mostly in poor countries, there remains a digital divide excluding them from the benefits of information and communication technology. It is thus far a tale of two worlds. Bridging the digital divide should, therefore, be a key element of the global development agenda. Undoubtedly, a lot of progress has been made in developing information technology infrastructure and global connectivity, creating an enabling environment, and instilling confidence by promoting cyber-security. However, a lot more needs to be done to increase the access of millions of people around the globe to information technology, particularly for low-income groups in developing countries.

Both the developed and developing countries must have a shared vision of how the world can eliminate the digital cleavage in content and physical infrastructure, thus leading the way to a truly open, inclusive and prosperous telecommunications age. On the one hand, steps should be taken to enhance capacity-building among the young through improved e-learning and education, while on the other, an enabling environment should be created to utilise their capabilities towards the advancement of a better, more peaceful and productive world. The key to achieving the development aspirations of humanity lies in investing in the future generation

Although there have been considerable achievements in the information and communication technology sector, many challenges remain. A major challenge to future growth is the availability of a highly skilled and semi-skilled workforce in this sector. There is a shortage of high-quality graduates in view of the increasing industry demand. Apart from this, appropriate infrastructure is also required to support the expansion of the telecom services. In view of the importance of broadband for convergence of computing, communication and broadcasting, the coverage of broadband connections needs to be expanded. Be it initiatives for establishing e-governance or providing e-services to citizens, availability and affordability of broadband are essential.

There is also a need to build capacity in academic institutions to engage in cutting-edge research and development required for supporting a globally competitive high-tech industry. The linkages between industry and research institutions need to be strengthened to provide commercial underpinnings to research and development activities. The inclusion of youth in the development process through skill development should remain the major focus of the development strategy.

The digital revolution is leading to yet another shift with implications likely to be just as seismic as the wheel. Young people are among the most prolific and knowledgeable users of information and communication technology. But the digital chasm leaves many out of this picture and unable to benefit fully from the opportunities of globalization. It may be emphasized that young people everywhere must have equal opportunities to rise out of poverty and illiteracy and to realise their full potential. Policymakers and industry leaders should put their minds together to produce suitable technologies, applications and services to facilitate access to children and youth. Visionary public policies, innovative business models and creative technological solutions should be promoted to empower young people and place them on the vanguard of the journey for development. The world needs to build a society which is open and pluralistic and where all people have access to information and knowledge.