Jan 10 - 16, 2011

While Pakistan is making a history on achieving 100 million subscriptions, a large number of telecom experts (so called) and media are criticizing and questioning the credibility of the figures quoted by the industry and the authority. With the current situation of our economy in particular and country in general, any such achievement is neither expected nor anticipated from any other sector of the economy.

Pakistan is homeland to 165 million people spread across length and breadth of the country. The economy is not very well documented where even for population count we have ten different figures quoted by government, non-government organisation and foreign organisations. The figure fudging, for general information, is a common phenomenon around the globe, and even prevails in the most advanced economies.

To give our readers a precise round up of telecom sector achievements, it is one sector of the economy that has brought in a foreign direct investment of over US$ 6.3 billion in last 5 years, a share of over 30 per cent in the total FDI entering in the country (2005-2010). The sector has contributed over Rs500 billion to the national exchequer in the form of taxes and duties in the last 5 years that shows over Rs100 billion per year to FBR.

Financial size of the sector is over Rs357 billion. Social benefits of growth in telecom sector are known and visible to everyone. Telecom services are the only services in the country whose prices have been reducing all this time, thus giving our burdened political leaders a reason to smile. Although telecoms cannot fill the empty stomachs but is serving as a mean to the ultimate end of earning livelihood.

Subscribers count, subscription number, SIM count and mobile density are terms that are used globally as indicators of more or less the same thing or may be to reach same number. Organizations like International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Asia Pacific Telecommunity (APT), Association of GSM (GSMA) and LirneAsia are concentrating their efforts on streamlining these parameters to define rules for subscribers, SIM and subscription count.

Around the globe, large number of European countries have gone past the penetration level of 100 per cent and some countries in Asia also claim to have penetration levels of over 100 per cent. These countries include Sweden, Bulgaria, Israel, Russia, Finland, Netherlands, Spain, Malaysia, and so on. Estonia is one country whose penetration rate is over 180 per cent. Penetration rate actually tells number of cellular subscribers per 100 people of the county and applying math gives total subscribers number in the country. It does not appeal to common sense that mobile penetration or shall we say mobile subscribers in a country are more than its total population (which of course includes children). So, over 100 per cent penetration or having more subscribers than population tells that there remains an element of miscounting of total subscribers by all countries of the world. Similarly, there are of course some factors, which make it difficult for countries to reach to a solid correct subscriber number or penetration rate. These factors are one person using multiple SIMs, one SIM being used by multiple users (mobile PCOs and rural areas where no communication is available), corporate customers who have multiple SIMs, (generally its 20 SIMs on one company's name), and use by children under the age of 18 years (who have no NICs thus no record). Therefore, there is as such no formula or rule of thumb defined so far to exactly calculate actual subscriber number if total SIM count is known. i.e. for every one person we take two or three SIMs.

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) maintains a database of all telecom indicators and a full directorate is designated for collecting (local) and disseminating (local, international) all and every data related to Pakistan telecom sector. The authentic and cross-checked data available with PTA related to all telecom indicators is since year 2000 till now. All the data, which PTA collects, is taken from the primary sources e.g. operators, federal board of revenue, ministry of finance etc. and according to international standards kept for data authenticity, data collected from primary source has minimum margin of error. In order to remain current with latest developments in ICT indicators, PTA officials are also sent for professional development courses on indicators.

Since active subscription has been an important and critical parameter around the world, companies, regulators and ministries have been working on it very seriously. In this regard, a tailored definition according to the requirements and availability of data is formed and implemented accordingly by operators, regulators etc. around the world. Regulators collect data according to it and operators provide data according to it. In case of Pakistan, PTA conducted a study on calculating active subscription and floated a consultation paper in the industry, with recommended definition for active subscribers, for comments and suggestions (same is available on PTA website for viewing).

In this regard after deliberation and discussions, a standard definition was mutually agreed and approved by the authority. The operators were asked to implement the definition and provide the active subscribers data to PTA on the basis of that definition. Later a certificate for implementation of definition and provision of data on that definition was also requested from operators (all have provided). Now PTA along with huge number of other indicators also collects data of active subscribers from operators, who provide them according to the definition. While implementing the active subscriber's definition, operators have gone through a process of data cleaning in which inactive subscribers were chucked out of the systems of operators. This exercise resulted in decline in the number of total active subscribers of each operator. According to the numbers, that PTA receives every month the sector and now holds total mobile subscription of over 100 million, which is growing every month.

Therefore, PTA collects data of active subscription from primary source, according to the approved definition based on international standards under the certificates of commitments received from all operators. The approved definition says "A subscription would be counted as active subscription if the subscription that is registered in the internal subscriber system of mobile service provider (i.e HLR) makes any revenue generating activity including outgoing (voice calls, sms, mms), incoming (voices calls) and others (recharge activity, roaming services, data transmissions including GPRS/internet access, data transfers, receipt sessions), during last 90 days. In case of no activity the subscription would be counted off from the billing system regardless of fact that subscriber has a valid balance within prescribed timeline of the credit at IN." Similarly for a count of inactive subscribers, the critiques should be aware of the fact that keeping an inactive number or subscriber on the technical systems and networks of operators bear cost which obviously is unnecessary burden.

The operators in Pakistan have done marvellous job in taking mobile to every nook and corner of the country. The government is gaining a lot in financial terms from the sector and consumers are enjoying a facility, which is now a necessity at lowest tariffs (as compared to ever rising tariffs of all the necessities). Therefore commending all our stakeholders, we endeavour to take our mobile penetration to the level of most advanced nations in the world. It does not matter how people criticize our achievement but what matters is the sense of accomplishment that we receive from the telecom consumers across the country and the international recognition of our services be it ITU or GSM association.