Looking back at 2002
ear 2002 will be marked most prominently as the last year of regulated telecommunication era in Pakistan. A lot of preparation went on the sides of government (which faced a continued transition from a telecommunication service operator to a telecommunication market regulator), the state-owned PTCL (which faced the challenge of a highly competitive deregulated market) and the private sector (which braced itself for the great opportunities that the deregulation potentially brings in).
A host of science and technology related events took place during this year in the country. In January, Karachi saw ‘IT-The Future of Pakistan’ a highly attended IT Conference and Exhibition to be followed by an equally premiere event of ITCN Asia 2002 Conference & Exhibition in August. These assemblies bore the impact of slowdown of the global IT market but still provided a picturesque description of the local software and IT market segment. The impacts of downturn in the US economy were unveiled as a large number of small software houses were closed down due to non-availability of foreign projects. The ISP industry also saw lots of smaller operators going down the line due to fierce industry competition and impractical business models.
Internet Bandwidth consumption grew healthily as gauged by the fact that the STM-1 circuit (155 MBPS) procured from Singtel by Pakistan Internet Exchange (PIE) was booked at near full capacity. Dialup Internet access got ubiquitous in major cities and was further extended to smaller cities by the ‘local-access-for-131’ arrangements done by the Ministry of Science & Technology. Industry insiders indicated an upward shift in the Internet bandwidth demand of corporate and SME customers. While customers typically asked for 64 kbps Internet connections, they are increasingly asking for higher capacities for their Internet connectivity requirements.
During 2002, major international telecom operators were hit by financial crisis having their roots in accounting malpractices. Worldcom, Teleglobe, Global Crossing and France Telecom are some of the operators that hit their rough patches. This, coupled with the overall downturn in the US economy, forced a glut of telecom equipment market in the US. While bad for them, it favored Pakistan (and other developing countries’) where refurbished and second hand telecom equipment flooded the market.
Pakistan Internet Exchange started the process of procuring a second STM-1 circuit to augment the existing STM-1 connectivity with Internet. The new contract with Singtel costs significantly less than the older one and the savings thus made would be passed on to the general Internet users in the form of reduced bandwidth prices.
Flag Telecom started its Pakistan Point of Presence (POP) in collaboration with PTCL. Flag offers an alternate physical optical fiber route out of Pakistan for Internet access and point-to-point international corporate data networks. Availability of an alternate route for Internet access lowers the risks associated with the current single point of failure (in the form of SEMEWE3).
PRI-Exchanges were also commissioned for commercial operations in major cities of Pakistan. These purpose-build exchanges provide high concentration of PRI circuits to corporate customers and Internet Service Providers. Before the availability of this exchange, potential PRI customers were facing long delays in service provisioning as well as falling service standards. As majority of the ISPs use PRI circuits to interconnect with the PSTN, ready availability of this service omen well for the dialup Internet users.
Internet access via ISDN lines saw a boom during 2002. With ISDN demand increasing within its customers, the state-owned telecom upgraded its major exchanges with additional ISDN hardware to meet the outstanding requirements. The advent of Chinese vendors in the telecom switch market has paved way for cost-effective high capacity upgrades in the PTCL infrastructure as manifested by the installation of thousands of ISDN ports in major PTCL exchanges.
DSL services were offered to the general public by the state owned PTCL under a franchisee-based set up where four private companies were awarded licenses to operated DSL services on behalf of PTCL in the major cities. Despite a lot of operational issues and problems inherent to the local copper infrastructure, the new service got very favorable response from the public and was an instant hit amongst the community network operators and cyber-café operators which had been facing an ever-increasing demand on the user side and were stuck with dialup connections.
Paknet, the ISP and sister organization of PTCL launched a WiFi (802.11b) network in Karachi which can theoretically provide broadband access to mobile users over regular wireless network adapters. While the service costs its users an arm and a leg, it ushers the advent of 2.4 GHz band public services for Internet access in the local market.
Next Generation Networks
Pakistan’s first CDMA wireless network was launched by Telecard - a local private telecommunication company - heralding the era of 3G network in this part of the world. The network brings Wireless Local Loop technology to Pakistan which has proven as a break through in achieving high ‘teledensity’ targets in developing and under developed countries. The service was launched in Karachi this year and has been extended in Hyderabad, Mirpurkhas and Larkana.
Ufone, the sister cellular concern of the state-owned telecom upgraded its existing GSM network to GPRS in December. GPRS is a 2.5G technology which enables mobile subscribers to remain connected to the internet all the time. GPRS enabled mobile devices and phones can enjoy a theoretical throughput of 20 kbps which is sufficient for most of the text based Internet applications such as email and chat.
Satellite Telephony services were offered by Thuraya, an International Satellite Telephony operator in a joint venture with PTCL at affordable local tariffs. Acting as a perfect complement to the cellular service, the satellite telephony service expands the coverage of telephony services to every nook and corner of the country.
IT & Education
Pakistan Educational Network (PEN) was inaugurated during this year. PEN connects national universities with a high speed optical fiber network. Under the project 56 public and private universities will be interconnected with each other through a fiber network. The approved capital cost of the project is Rs 298 million. National Telecommunication Corporation (NTC) is implementing the project in collaboration with Pakistan Telecommunication Corporation (PTCL).
Virtual University is a major project of the Ministry of Science & Technology in the execution of its IT plans. A degree awarding setup, VU utilizes Television and Internet as the basic means of delivering the required Information Technology education and training to its students.
On the broadcast front, during 2002 the Government committed itself to the privatization of the Radio and Television services to increase the spectrum of the available on-air contents. The Government announced that in all, 39 licenses will be issued to the private sector for setting up FM radio stations in 21 cities. TV broadcast licenses were granted to two academic channels and two more were promised to be awarded to private sector by Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA).
Pakistan’s first geo-stationary satellite PAKSAT-1 was announced to be operational in the orbit on 23rd December. While not indigenously made in Pakistan (the satellite has been leased from Hughes and had previous incarnations by the names of Palpa-C1 and Anatolia-1), it omens well for the future of communication technology in Pakistan. The satellite, despite some operational problems with its hardware, can be used for educational, scientific and military research purposes.