The anticipation of 5G’s launch in Pakistan has been ongoing for years, with each government making claims of introducing the next-generation technology during their respective tenures. Dr. Umar Saif, the current caretaker minister of IT and telecom, continues this trend, asserting the near-future launch of 5G. Addressing a Mobile Phone Summit, the minister discussed opening a 300 MHz band for a 5G auction in the upcoming months, sparking hope for its successful launch. However, a closer look at the technicalities involved suggests that 5G in Pakistan remains a distant dream. Here are several reasons supporting this stance.
Pakistan Lags Far Behind in 5G Readiness:
Despite the World Bank’s recommendations in its report on Telecommunications Advisory Assistance and the 5G Readiness Plan for Pakistan, the country has not implemented crucial suggestions. These include the provision of large, affordable spectrum blocks for effective 5G deployment, broader optical fiber access, and widespread penetration of budget-friendly 5G smartphones. The Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MOITT) must issue a policy directive for the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to kickstart the 5G implementation process. However, technical briefings on these prerequisites are lacking, requiring substantial on-the-ground work beyond loud announcements. Telecom experts suggest that ministers should refrain from making ambitious claims without addressing these technical challenges.
Economic Realities Pose Challenges:
In addition to technical hurdles, economic realities demand serious consideration. The capital-intensive telecom sector faces challenges with high-interest rates, a depreciating exchange rate, and rising business costs amid foreign exchange restrictions. Importing essential equipment for 5G involves a hefty investment, and the current 5G device penetration in the country stands below 1 percent, necessitating substantial imports of 5G smartphones. A conservative estimate places the cost at $1.75 billion, a significant portion of the current foreign exchange reserves. Unfortunately, these economic realities have been conveniently overlooked by both current and previous IT ministers.
Populist Narratives from IT Ministers:
Since 2021, IT ministers, including Syed Amin ul Haque and the current caretaker minister, have woven populist narratives about the imminent launch of 5G in Pakistan. Previous claims of launching 5G by December 2022 and then July 2023 have not materialized, with the country now in 2024. It seems that the incumbent caretaker minister is following a similar pattern, making populist claims without addressing the intricate challenges associated with launching 5G.