With mobile operators in Pakistan starting to shift their focus to value-added services, there was much anticipation in the market place when the PTA finally issued 3G licences through an auction process in 2014. Coming into 2015 the anticipation was well-founded as the roll-out of 3G services gave the sector a real boost. In fact 3G subscribers comprised 15% of the total mobile subscriber base by September 2015. The overall mobile market claimed 140 million subscribers by mid-2014. However, coming into 2015, the sector then encountered a major problem when the government ordered re-verification of SIMs for security reasons. This saw a dramatic drop in total subscribers. Mobile penetration fell from 77% in June 2014 to 61% twelve months later. All signs in the second half of 2015 were pointing to a quick recovery.

Internet penetration remained low across the country. Broadband growth had almost been negligible for some years, but there were some positive signs in recent years. The big change has been the arrival of mobile broadband on a large scale in 2014. This has boosted overall broadband growth, helped also by intense competition in the market place. Of course, the granting of 3G - and 4G - licences in 2014 had certainly changed the broadband landscape.

As for the regulatory environment, the government had in fact started to assign the 3G licences way back in 2007. But delay after delay had occurred, much of which had not been properly explained by the authorities. Whilst the regulatory authorities had badly fumbled the task of auctioning the 3G licences, there was much of a positive nature in the Pakistan government’s opening up of the telecom market. The progressive implementation of the reform plans over a number of years had triggered a period of strong growth in the local telecom market. Up until recently the energy and growth was predominantly in mobile services; as the mobile market moderates, the focus has shifted to broadband access in its various forms.

In the meantime, there has been no significant activity in fixed-line services as originally intended and in fact subscriptions in this sector are in decline. The government had initially focused on fixed lines setting out ambitious plans to increase fixed-line teledensity. After peaking at around 4% in 2008, fixed penetration had fallen to around 3% coming into 2015. And, at the same time, the majority of these fixed lines were in urban areas. A more balanced distribution would certainly be desirable in the longer term as 70% of Pakistan’s population live in rural areas.

Control of internet content remained a big issue in Pakistan. The government has directed that the monitoring of websites for ‘anti-Islam content’ be undertaken by the PTA, the telecom regulator. Amid growing concern about greater restrictions on internet access in the country, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HCRP), an independent body, has said that about 13,000 sites were inaccessible. The regulator said that the figure was closer to 2,000 sites.

For more information see - Pakistan - Telecoms, Mobile and Broadband