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The Telecom-IT Saga

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 element.

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 natural growth.

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 operators.

"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 Communication."

The author is Media & Communication Executive, Techlogix (Pvt) Ltd.

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.