WLL SUSTAINABLE GROWTH NEEDS SELF-RELIANCE

TARIQ AHMED SAEEDI (tariqsaeedi@hotmail.com)
Dec 08 - 21, 2008

The developments of alternative telecommunication services in Pakistan are accelerated due not mainly to increase in competition and numbers of companies but significant shift in preference of subscribers to other better quality changeovers. Had improvement and standardization in services of pioneer telecom service provider been noticed, this shift would have been in low-key rather than impulse as if subscribers were desperately longing for deliverance from the status-quo in landline telecommunication.

Cellular mobile services availed the flock of alienated landline users and, like godsend, occupied huge rate of subscriptions. And within a short span of time, they have been delivered to 89.5 million SIMs by different mobile service providers. Wireless local loop is a beneficiary of trend shifting. While it is also instrumental in delivering telecommunication services to underserved localities where landline is not installed rise in WLL teledensity reached to over 33 percent only in Azad Jammu & Kashmir and northern areas made it a catalyst of telecom growth in the country.

Till June, 2008 fixed line subscribers of PTCL, NTC, Brain Limited, World Call, Union Communication, Naya Tel were 4.54 million. Numbers of subscribers of World Call and PTCL have been decreasing for last two or three years. In 2006, total subscribers of PTCL were 5.12 million, 4.67 million in 2007, and 4.40 million by June 2008. World Call lost approximately 2,000 fixed line subscribers in two years from 13,327 in 2006 to mid 2008.

In contrast, numbers of WLL subscribers are increasing year on year, exhibiting 2.4 percent growth in a single month of October. The rise in expansion of subscription base has exhibited growing interests of people for WLL. According to PTA data, 14 WLL companies are operating across the country. Reportedly WLL licenses have been issued to five other operators. Local as well as foreign investors have found the sector lucrative and promising.

Total subscribers base of eight WLL operators comprised of 2.32 million by October, 2008. Given the figure in 2005 when WLL services were used by only 265,028 users, this is no less than an exponential progress. PTCL is the leading operator in this segment as well with highest numbers of 1.17 million subscribers followed by Telecard (550,972), World Call (517,424), Great Bear (44,497), Wateen (32,497), Link Direct (2,223), Buraq (400), and Mytel (138).

While aggregate teledensity of fixed line and WLL keeps on increasing fixed line teledensity has declined from 3.04 percent in 2007 to 2.7 percent in October, 2008. In contrast, WLL has teledensity increased from 1.08 percent in 2007 to 1.5 percent in October, 2008. Area wise percentage is different from national gross figure. For instance teledensity in rural areas is quite better than that in whole country because of special focus is given to promote telecommunication through wireless technology within complex terrains where landline access is relatively unsuitable.

Telecom experts expect that wireless technology will accelerate penetration and outreach expansion of telecom services in suburban, remote areas. Since broadband internet has not achieved a desirable penetration level and large population in the country has no access to broadband services, the technology will also speed up expansion in outreach of broadband. Perhaps, PTCL is the only operator with highest broadband coverage. Its broadband services have reached to over 100 cities, towns, and suburbs. Despite entry of new operators, the rate of broadband services has not been nominal so far. Rs. 1200 per month, an average tariff, is not attractive to internet cable network users who can use internet of normal speed with a far below rate.

Obstructive access to several localities nationwide is causing low proliferation of broadband services. The wireless technology can rule out the negative impact posed by the access element.

It is commonly observed that many people prefer to subscribe to wireless local loop and landline subscribers are replacing considerably landline modes of communication with WLL system due to inefficiency of leading telephone service provider and its competitive call rates. Landline subscribers often complain about the quality of telephony service. Both in terms of tariff structure and service provision, the country's leading operator of landline telecommunication have not made marks in customer satisfaction graph even after the emergence of decentralization regime in telecommunication, in subsequent effect, forcing people to go towards substitutes like wireless local communication system or mobile telecommunication.

A landline complainant told this scribe that he decided to switch to alternative telephone service because of consistent and unresolved landline connection problems. Development works in mainly urban areas in the country caused prolongation of problems related to transmission lines. The larger the underdevelopment area the gravest is the problem, which is clearly evident mainly in Karachi where mega constructions have taken place in last three years. The underground cable grids have been laid improperly without considering future urban construction and expansion plans. Therefore, they were damaged.

Wireless technology can become cost effective medium of bolstering telecom sector around the country. In economic aspect, the utilization of this technology reduces the costs incurred on installment of infrastructure, upkeep and monitoring of under ground cables. The expense accrued to erection of towers for interconnection is not inasmuch as landline equipments. Rate of subscription will greatly enlarge wireless provision of telecommunication services across the country. As both telephony as well as broadband services can be delivered via the technology, it has also commercial viability. Other specialties such as unhooked service utilization of wireless local loop over fixed line make it a convenient system of today's IT age. The point of realization will wireless operators have enlarged subscribers base, but growth will be sustainable if it is based on self-reliance of operators instead of at the expense of cannibalization of substitutes; what was happened earlier when dwindling performance of landline gave way to success to wireless technology.