MOBILE TELEPHONY IN BALOCHISTAN

SYED FAZL-E-HAIDER
Mar 03 - 09, 2008

The country's largest but least developed province of Balochistan has witnessed a rapid growth of Mobile telephony during a period of last three years. The tele-density has significantly grown in the province with Mobile sector share of more than 8.05 per. Total mobile subscribers have crossed the figure of 800,000 compared to 112,290 in 2004. However, the province is still far behind as compared to the rest of the country, which has witnessed a faster growth in tele-density during last three years. Though the sector is growing well in the provincial capital Quetta with new mobile connections every month, yet its penetration among the lowest strata of the society especially in rural Balochistan is much less than the Quetta city.

The mobile network covers a population of 2.7 million which is around 35 per cent of total population of Balochistan. The fixed line subscribers are substituting fixed line with mobile services in the province. In 2006, the fixed line subscribers in the province have dropped by 5 per cent.

MOBILE-SETS MARKET

The Mobile phone-sets market is rapidly growing and expanding in major cities of Balochistan. Today, one can witness hundreds of mobile phone "sale & repair" shops in the provincial capital, Quetta. It has become a business of great choice for the small investors and businessmen in Balochistan. The mobile phone shops have seen a mushroom growth in all the major markets of Quetta including Liaqat Bazar, Suraj Ganj Bazar, Masjid Road, Mission road, Abdul Satar road, Satellite town and so on. The mobile phone sets of latest model are displayed in these shops and the sellers are earning handsome amounts due to the buying euphoria of their customers.

Keeping and displaying of latest mobile sets has developed as a symbol of status. There are rare cases of mobile phone snatching in Quetta, as compared to Karachi and Lahore where it has become a routine street crime.

PRIVATE MOBILE OPERATORS

The private mobile phone companies including Mobilink, Ufone. Telenor, Paktel and Al-Warid are currently engaged in expanding their operations and business in different areas of Balochistan, which is considered today a highly potential telecom market. The mobile firms however largely dither to invest particularly in remote areas of the province for geographical and social constraints, which have increased the cost of doing business. The province is not considered by the companies as commercially viable for launching their services. As national organizations, the Mobilink and Ufone are however expanding their services across the province.

While Ufone plans to cover all the 26 districts, Mobilink is investing in the expansion of its network and capacity in order to meet the rapidly growing demand for its services in remote areas of the province. Mobilink and Ufone have extensive plans of increasing coverage deep in the province. Both the companies are however facing obstacles to penetrate the Balochistan market. Their main problems include PTCL media unavailability, scattered population, difficult terrain and security environment particularly in Baloch tribal belt.

The Mobilink recently requested the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) for another line in Zhob and in Gwadar, where it already has the services and franchise. Presently, the Mobilink is largest mobile operator with 1.5 million subscribers in the province. According to Zia Khatak, the regional manager operations of Mobilink in Quetta, the Mobilink, which started its operations in 2001 in the province, has presence in remote areas of Sibi, Dhadar, Gwadar and Zhob. He considered that there was immense potential for growth of cellular telephony in the province.

Similarly, the Ufone, which launched its services in Balochistan in April 2003, is the second largest mobile operator in the province after Mobilink. Last year, Ufone launched its services to cover more areas in the Baloch belt including Panjgur, Turbat, Awaran, Bela, Wadh, Lehri and Shahrags. While in Pashtoon belt, it has covered more areas including Sanjavi, Ziarat, Masai, Saigi, Barshor and Maizai Addah. According to Farooq Jabbar, the Ufone regional manager customer operations, the company needs infrastructure to tap fully the highly potential telecom market of Balochistan.

Other companies like Al-warid, Telenor and Paktel are also gradually emerging as competitors to the Mobilink and Ufone in Balochistan. They are also increasing their number of subscribers and making investments for expansion of their operations and services to remote areas of the province. These companies are offering different packages to attract the customers. The competition among the Mobile firms is likely to further enhance the number of mobile phone subscribers in Balochistan. The mobile operators should not however compromise on quality and provide better and competitive services to the local subscribers. The PTA should provide every possible facility and assistance to all operators that have recently started their services and are currently planning for deployment of their networks in the province.

GOVERNMENT'S ROLE

The government needs to play a role of facilitator in growth of cellular telephony in Balochistan. It should facilitate more operators to start with their operations and extend incentives to the telecom industry in the province. What is needed on the part of government is the development of reliable and sound telecommunications infrastructure in the province. It must take steps to lay fibre optic in all the districts, so that the mobile telephone firms could complete their coverage plans in far-flung areas and the people of rural Balochistan could also enjoy the services and franchise being provided by these firms in Quetta or other cities of Pakistan.

Taking advantage of its geo-strategic position, Balochistan can be developed as a hub of activity for international and local telecom companies. There is a need to prepare a well thought telecom policy after intensive discussions and debates involving all stakeholders. The mobile telephony market in the province should be characterized by a tremendous consumer demand, high levels of competition and a government that would be ready to welcome inward investment. The government should set an annual target for the mobile penetration in province and efforts should be directed to achieve that target by the end of the fiscal year.