The mobile subscription outdid all the other forms of telecom connectivity in Pakistan despite frantic attempts by the state and the government under one pretext or another to rein in the sector in the name of documentation or tax collection, especially during the last 10 months of the “government for change”. As per the statistics available, the mobile subscription touched the 154 million mark as of March 2019 data available with the regulatory bodies.
Here it may be pointed out that a flurry of events during the last few years put big question marks over the regulatory and surveillance capabilities of the government and the state, especially with respect to the state emphasis on the “national security” character of the Pakistani nation state. For obvious and predictable reasons the industry and the society had to bear the brunt of the consequent “siege and search”.
The 2015 biometric verification of the SIMs by the PTA was such discouraging factor for the industry. Over that successive and halfhearted attempts are registration of the imported mobiles with the PTA also created hiccups in the development of the sector. The last fiscal year saw many such attempts under the title of DRIBS, which could not achieve the desired results due to lack of homework on part of the regulators as well as the related government departments. Last but not the least the repeated attempts at taxing the prime telecom sector hardware the mobile device for supposed resource mobilization did slow down the procurement of the new devices but did not succeed in completely stalling the growth of the sector. Last fiscal year despite all the odds the growth of the mobile subscription speaks of the peculiar profile of the sector; which has created a place for itself in the normal life style of the under developed Pakistani economy.
As things stand, the biggest beneficiary of that growth in subscription has been the informal banking sector, though it is also under the radar of the FATF financial task force. The opening of the mobile banking accounts on the basis of the CNIC and BVS which is connected with the SIM has allowed a large cross section of public to maintain banking services without going into the hassle of opening the bank accounts, without going through the stringent process of KYC (Know your customer) etc.
In this way, it would be an appropriate statement that the goal of financial inclusion of the informal sector of the economy could not have been possible without the strides taken in the context of the financial sector.
With almost 159 million mobile phones in operation across Pakistan accounting for more than 75 percent of the total population of the country, it depends squarely on the regulators as to how they can make the most of the opportunities available. Given the fact that sanctioned states have already moved to the 4.5 G LTE stage and are now going for the next step 5G, it is a question mark for the otherwise frontline state like Pakistan not to make the most of the opportunities available.
Given the shrinking pockets of the common man courtesy revival of FED on consumable essentials, it remains to be seen, with an unstable currency and shrinking incomes, besides an air of suspense and fear, how people will resort to spending and thus trying to push the wheel of the economic growth.
The telecom sector, obviously not acting in isolation is bound to get the brunt of the general air and environment of uncertainty, which engulfs the state, society, polity and economy. For apparent reasons the prospects of growth in the financial year 2020 remain bleak, despite the sector managing stability during 2019.