Balochistan is largely an untapped telecom market with the lowest number of mobile phone users. In 2018, a dozen telecom projects were launched to deploy telecom network and services in the province. Today, the telecom operators are set to unleash the potential of the province with 46 percent of the 12.3 million population has no access to either mobile, wireless or a fixed line network. Universal Service Fund (USF), an autonomous organization under the Ministry of Information Technology set out an aggressive strategy to roll out the basic infrastructure of telecommunication, basic telephone and internet service for people and businesses in the province.
Balochistan has immense potential for the development of telecom sector and its geo-strategic location in the region is also an attraction for the foreign telecom firms. Less affordability and non-availability of electricity are the main impediments for development of this sector in the province. Other obstacles are its geography and demography indicating a difficult terrain and scattered population. The advancement and growth in telecom is having impact on the underdeveloped economy and most backward society of Balochistan. The province will take decades to come on par with rest of the country’s developed regions in the 21st century’s fields of information technology (IT) and telecommunication. Both are the key sectors, which can help the province tread on path of fast track development. 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 one decade. 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 society, especially in rural Balochistan, is much less than the Quetta city.
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has added to the geostrategic importance of the strategically located province. The ongoing projects are set to provide telecom services in CPEC adjoining areas of the province such as Kharan-Washuk, Kalat, Khuzdar, Sibi, Zhob, Kohistan, D. I. Khan, Khyber and Dera Bugti. In 2017, the projects were awarded to provide mobile broadband services in Awaran-Lasbela, Kharan-Washuk and Dera Bugti. The cellular operator Ufone has extensive plans to further develop telecommunication infrastructure to provide voice and data services under 3G licenses across Balochistan. The Ufone had been awarded projects worth Rs14.2 billion in various cities, including Sibi, Kalat, Khuzdar, Chagai, Awaran, Kharan-Washuk and Dera Bugti districts. No doubt, the expansion and penetration of telecom services are set to give a synergetic effect to CPEC and attract cellular operators to expand their respective network within the province.
The deregulation of telecom industry is fast gaining momentum with dozens of more communication companies and millions of customers entering both the fixed-line and mobile telephone markets. The sector is currently contributing more than two percent to GDP directly and indirect contribution in other sectors of the economy takes this share to about 5 percent. Balochistan is yet to fully enjoy the fruits of deregulation, which has brought scores of new private entrants to provide service in the country. The province still lacks the sound telecommunication infrastructure while having a potential telecom market after the deregulation of telecom industry. The former government of President Pervaiz Musharraf had taken certain initiatives to enhance the telecom access as well as tele-density in the province. For instance, it had reduced the annual regulatory fee of Wireless Local Loop (WLL) licensees operating in the province from 0.5 per cent to 0.1 per cent for three years initially and 0.5 per cent to 0.25 per cent in subsequent two years. Annual Spectrum Fee for WLL was also reduced to 10 per cent of the actual fee applicable under the license.
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 IT and 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.
Today, law and order has become a major problem in the province. It provides a risky environment to implement any business plan or economic activity. The incidents of bomb blasts, attacks on public installations and target killings have become a routine. The prevailing security situation in the province is enough to discourage the foreign firms to start their operations.
The government should also take steps to improve the security environment in the province, so that private firms could expand their operations across the province. The level of development in telecommunication is generally measured through tele-density; hence the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) should take steps to enhance tele-density in the province. Steps should be taken to establish community-based tele-centers across Balochistan, where telecom facilities will be shared instead of having dedicated facilities. A telecom forum should be arranged as a calendar activity by the PTA to provide a platform for promoting interaction among telecom consumers, private sector and telecom regulator for telecom development and for devising a strategic approach for development of telecom services in the province.
Today, it is however, the telecom services which have somewhat connected the people living in far off places in the province. The people now off and on talk to their friends through mobile telephones and remain aware of the welfare of their friends and relatives living in far off places. The telecom penetration has somewhat changed the lifestyle of the people in the province. The growth of telecom sector created lot of jobs for local people. Many people are currently associated with the business of mobile telephony. There are mobile telephone markets, which have been set up in every district and main city of Balochistan. The people frequently visit the markets for the purpose of purchase, sale and repair of their cell phones.