Pakistan’s information communications and technology sector is resilient. Despite the country’s widely-reported economic challenges, this sector has been one of the largest contributors to the economy over the last decade. Islamabad is committed not simply to preserving these gains but building on them, sustainably and cleanly. It is committed, unreservedly, to socioeconomic development, which is made additionally attainable today through accelerated digitization and access to technology.
The technology landscape is shifting for Pakistan at high speed. This is good news.
Around the developing world, information technology has dragged societies irreversibly toward greater fairness, openness, and democracy. In Pakistan, this growth driver has assisted in arresting impoverishment and in supporting transparency and accountability, improvement in public services, access to information, empowerment, education and employment. To take this further, Pakistan will, over the next five years, see expanded and upgraded infrastructure, more affordable universal connectivity through competition, and a revivified human-resource base afforded generous space for incentivized collaboration and collective research.
Pakistan’s teledensity—the number of phone connections per 100 people over a given area—is around 76 percent. This stat will rise sharply after ongoing infrastructural upgrades to our wireless broadband and fiber-optic network are completed. Our Universal Service Fund has already financed the expansion of the information grid by some 4,000 kilometers. For a country with a large and vibrant youth population, this greater access to information technology will open up new avenues of expression and employment. These changes are likely to create almost 1 million jobs over five years.
On April 23, Pakistan is scheduled to roll out its 3G and 4G mobile broadband spectrum auction. Heeding lessons from other developing countries and in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of this initiative, the auction will be manifestly transparent. Prospective bidders and, more importantly, 100-million-plus cellphone users in Pakistan are keenly anticipating the arrival of life-changing, high-speed data services on their handsets. The upgraded service will reap cross-channel dividends for our society by revolutionizing mobile banking, news consumption and citizen journalism, music and the arts, literacy and health initiatives. This IT-driven tomorrow is something we all look forward to.
To facilitate physical access to hardware and training, the Universal Service Fund is also helping establish 500 telecenters in rural and underserved areas to equip citizens with the tools they need to develop promising new initiatives. Our Research and Development Fund has been identifying projects to incubate for the joint ownership of the entire IT sector and benefit of all citizens. This initiative has brought out programs for electronic facilitation of citizens in key areas such as agriculture, health, learning, policing, and commerce. Such public-private partnerships make governance transparent, accessible, and accountable. The far reaching consequences of such openness and outreach will only strengthen the citizen’s abiding faith in the democratic system of elected representation.
To promote Pakistan’s IT industry—which is perceived as fragmented and, as a result, uncompetitive compared with its regional counterparts despite not lacking for talent or expertise—the Pakistan Software Export Board is developing technology parks to foster a creative collective. This envisages not only new enterprise solutions, but also research that supports and informs overall growth.
Technology has leveled borders and brought people together. But this has not come without its perils. Since its creation in 1865, the International Telecommunication Union, a specialized agency of the United Nations, has been vital in facilitating best practices and developing consensus across the global information communications and technology horizon. Pakistan, too, has benefited from its collective wisdom: ITU provided us with assistance on recent legislation to tackle cyber terrorism and cyber crime.
But the individual efforts of sovereign states to this end are not enough. The ITU can and must advance a globally-enforceable framework that tackles today’s borderless technology crimes; that, through treaties, closes space for and penalizes anonymous Web criminals, whose virtual-world crimes have very real consequences in the living world. This is necessary to secure and strengthen the freedoms that technology continues to furnish citizens with around the world. If there’s one thing that can halt our march forward, it is allowing the nameless, faceless abusers—individuals and organizations, both—of the freedoms the IT revolution has wrought to carry on with impunity. That’s something we simply cannot afford.
Khan is Pakistan’s minister of state for IT. This piece has been adapted from her speech last month at the ITU World Telecommunication Development Conference 2014. From our April 19, 2014, issue.