By ZAKEESH IQBAL KHAN
Mar 05 - 11, 2001
There was a time, when voice and data transmission were two separate
domains. Both domains served their own functions, where voice was supposed to provide
timely and reliable delivery, while data transmission was known for its reliability
The intrinsic difference between the Internet and voice telephony
services worldwide is that the Internet was born out of a completely unregulated network,
while the telecoms are heavy with regulation. Internet expansion and evolution is
exponential in its timing, while the telecoms have been cautious and slow moving. However,
when in the early 90s data traffic exceeded voice traffic, the telecoms realized a new
opportunity of voice and data convergence.
At this point in the story lets introduce, Pakistan Telecommunication
Company Limited (PTCL), which has shown a lack of vision, implemented ad hoc policies and
have sused their monopolistic advantage.
Lets judge PTCL's performance on the basis of telephone and Internet
connectivity. According to PTCL, 3.12 million people have telephone lines (not all
digitized) out of the 741 million worldwide. Pakistan's teledensity rate (telephone lines
per 100 inhabitants) is at 2.34 % lagging far behind other Asian countries with an average
of 7. PTCL however aims to raise it to 5.6% by 2003; the predicted figure for countries
with rates between 1 and 5 is estimated to reach 15 by year 2010. It is quite possible
that Pakistan may meet this target because PTCL's performance in the voice domain,
relatively speaking has been satisfactory, it is in the domain of information technology
where it falls victim to a conflict of interests and tries to regulate it, deterring its
Dr. Sohail Aslam, Chief Technology Officer- Techlogix explains,
"The largest earnings of PTCL are through international calls, no, not from calls
made from Pakistan but from those that are made from abroad with Pakistan as their
destination. In accordance to the International Telecommunication Union treaty that
Pakistan is signatory to, there is an accounting rate system of half-circuit charging that
translates into splitting the cost and revenue from a leased line or international call
between the two or more Public Telecommunication Operators providing network service.
Thus, PTCL generated a steady flow of foreign revenue into the country and earned more
than a fair share of it, a scenario PTCL can see changing and will do utmost to resist.
However, PTCL did make very solid infrastructural investments and while not all of these
can be called rational, all of them are proof of PTCL's financial prosperity.
He further added, ìThe problem with PTCL's investments is not in their
soundness but in their incongruity with the country's telecommunication needs. Take for
instance fiber optic cables being laid down throughout the country. Each cable has 3 to 4
strands in it. Pakistan's entire telecom needs are met with one that leaves three strands
unused and wasted referred to as dark strands. The problem therefore is not the
unavailability of resources but in the underutilization of them or/and inappropriate
prioritization of necessary improvements".
The government has taken various initiatives to spread Internet
connectivity across the country as effectively and efficiently as possible. Apparently
PTCL is decreasing the cost of leased lines for ISPs and the charges for international
leased lines have been reduced 5 times over the last couple of years. Digital Subscriber
Lines (DSL), which increases bandwidth and enhances data-carrying capacity of lines is not
yet operational but PTCL is looking for private sector investment in this sector. PTCL has
issued 122 licenses to Internet Service Providers and 357 licenses to cable television
"All these measures are welcome I'm sure," says Dr. Aslam,
"but yet they don't seem to be enough. DSL technology without upgrading the country's
backbone infrastructure will not yield the desired results. Currently all of Pakistan data
traffic transits through the United States so while I may just be sending my neighbour an
email, it will first go and touch base at a peering point in the US and then come all the
way back to his computer, which can be avoided by installing specialized routers,
networking and related software.
Similarly when it comes to supporting ISPs, out of the 122 licensed
ISPs only 43 of them are operational because the leased line rates, bandwidth, license
fee, renewal charges and royalty is still too high. Also with PTCL not allowing ISPs to
use their own networks for providing internet, these ISPs do not invest enough in their
telecom infrastructure to achieve high speed networks, as a result the end-user suffers
from sub-standard and unreliable service.
He adds, "Cable operators also suffer from an exorbitant license
fee that is directly proportionate to the number of users for example they would pay
Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) Rs. 50,000 license fee and Rs. 25,000 annual
fee for 1000 users. Therefore while PTA would like to spread Internet access through cable
it will never really be able to determine the extent of its reach because cable operators
hide their actual number of subscribers due to the effect it has on their PTA dues.
Also to be able to provide Internet connectivity cable operators need
to replace simple line extenders (LEX) connectors to extend their network which they use
presently with repeaters (a simple telephonic amplifier) and this requires an enormous
investment which they might not be ready for at the moment. The problem is that despite
its efforts PTA could never become a consumer-oriented industry. Victim to its own
monopolistic status it has an inherent need to be in control."
"We as a nation are not "intellectually mature" enough
to handle or utilize the world of opportunities that the telecommunication and IT
industry have opened up to us." says Dr. Aslam.
Give your common man the ultimate utopia of communication: inexpensive,
fast and reliable access to internet, a world of informational resource at a click of a
button, voice and video over IP, wireless internet access, you name it, you think it, its
there! And what happens nothing! He has it all and yet it's not enough. He cannot
make use of the opportunities offered because he is unaware.
In the meanwhile, can we still have our happy ending? Is it still
possible, Dr. Aslam?
"Yes it is. Entities like PTA can provide companies like ours an
enabling environment. One in which the expertise and knowledge of the people that make up
the company can be fully used and passed on. These people in returning from the hub of
information technology namely the United States, brought with them culture, technical
expertise, entrepreneurial sense and vision, on top of that they managed to stay
"with-it" since they went on to serve the international industry. Now in doing
their developmental work here, they are passing on their knowledge to the new entrants in
the field at the same time they are grooming them for the international circuit. But they
need PTAís contribution too, in the form of infrastructural support, insurance of fast,
cheap and reliable internet with greater bandwidth that meets their demands of internet
telephony, video conferencing, software development etc., in short they need the Utopia of
The author is Media & Communication Executive, Techlogix (Pvt)
Dr. Sohail Aslam is the Chief Technologist at Techlogix, a software
house with offices in Boston, New York, Silicon Valley and Lahore. Dr. Aslam completed his
PhD in Computer Science from the University of Urbana-Champaign. He served as faculty
member at LUMS and National University of Computer and Engineering Sciences.