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De-Regulated Telecom Sector: Dream And Reality

Telecom deregulation in Pakistan is narrated as a success story without gauging regulatory governance potential as per international practices. Narrow scope of the deregulation policy and the regulatory span is quite evident in the recent events of terrorism, presence of grey trafficking and illegal gateway exchanges. Unverified SIMs in the market, illegal operation of Afghan SIMs and outdated licensing policy, raises questions against the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), which is the premier regulatory chamber in the telecom sector. These issues, force us to consider if the goals of deregulation have been achieved as codified in the ‘Telecom Deregulation Policy 2003’.

Since the pronouncement of this policy, almost every government has presented a glittering picture of the telecom regulatory regime in order to hide its inabilities. No one has realised the loopholes and the governance issues present in PTA, and there also has been no change in telecom policy to match the changing global scene.

As far as performance is concerned, if this sector is compared with other developing or regional countries, it is quite meagre. The sector has not been utilized to bring real change in the lives of the people. It has only been used as an addiction tool for people especially the younger generation to unnecessary packages, just to collect indirect taxes in order to generate revenue for the government. Furthermore, no major step has been taken to engage the young lot to fortify the sector and to provide them a platform to showcase their creativity. Even a low level of regulatory performance could not bring forth a revolution, as predicted by the policy initiative at the time of launch.

In fact, the ultimate goal of liberalisation was lost, due to inefficient regulatory arrangements which could have contributed to real economic activities of the country. Bureaucratic culture, outdated policies, unprofessional regulatory arrangements and absences of reformatory vision are the main impediments faced by the sector. Regulatory independence of PTA has been dumped under the ministerial interferences and politically motivated top leadership.

Till now, not even a single government has created an independent, professional and visionary regulatory governance structure for such an important supervisory institute. A three members’ chamber of decision has been formed with a string in the hands of the concerned minister to promote political agenda. Power to change the criteria of appointment, regarding this chamber is also a matter of serious concern. This approach has undermined the regulatory independence and is in violation of the promises of the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organisation) Act of 1996.

Initially, this sector emerged as a new avenue of economy, but the trends from the last few years do not seem encouraging. Government support through various tax concessions and holidays presented it as a key sector at the nascent stage. However, after lifting these concessions, regulatory performance was exposed. Published statistical figures on PTA’s website factually corroborate this assertion. The overall teledensity in the country sharply dropped to 62 percent in 2014-15, from 80 percent in 2013-14, when other regional countries were showing positive trends.

In the last few years, trends have been improving but inconsequentially, as compared to India whose overall teledensity is at 89 percent. Subscribers in the fixed line segment have seen a major decline, and have remained half (2.6 million in 2016-17) of the overall registered subscribers in 2004-05 (5.2 million), while other telecom slices are at a static point with sluggish growth rates. In spite of the launch of 3G and 4G technologies, mobile teledensity ratios have not increased. Same is the case with the wireless local loop which has shown an alarming slump of 0.21 percent as compared to 3.12 per cent in 2011-12.

These trends affect liberalisation as well as revenue and contribution goals for the government. Similarly, investment trends are not positive as well and have declined from 635 million US dollars to 3,975 million US dollars in 2006-07.

The eventual plan of liberalisation and deregulation of this sector, has not been utilised to meet the agenda of growth and development in industrial and agricultural sectors. The biggest motivation behind this was to help the underdeveloped areas of the country. However, even after launching 3G & 4G technologies, no serious effort has been to made to deliver community services like tele-medicine, small business development, farming, humanitarian aid and e-learning applications to teach the students of remote areas.

If we want to emerge as a leading developing economy then we have to induct a professional telecom governance with new targets based on international practices, which were also promised in the codified objectives of the promulgated telecom policy. – Daily Times

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