Rural Broadband In Pakistan: Powered Off


Goth in Sindh40 Kilometers out of Karachi, in the neighborhood of Sultanabad, Kemari Town lies a small goth named Anwar Thaheem of over 3000 inhabitants. The village consists of a school, a single entertainment area and just one bricked house which is owned by the chieftain whilst the rest are thatched huts. The majority of the residences are illiterate and despite the presence of a single computer which was donated to the school long ago, it has never been turned on due to lack of knowledge of the populace. This goth in particular is of interest because the electricity wires that reach Karachi pass overhead (official kunda costs only Rs. 500 per month) and the fiber optic cables that connects the country pass within 20 feet of the village.

It’s places like these that serve as a reminder that despite the promise of information technology that has brought prosperity to millions of (mostly Urban) Pakistanis, unless the rural-urban divide is bridged and the issues of systemic issues not taken up more seriously, the broadband connection to over 1000 cities despite the hoopla will prove to be of little benefit to our country and the economy at large.

The promise of broadband for the rural sector has been hyped up for years.  It has been seen as unlocking the great potential of the digital revolution in the service of relief to save lives, sustainable development and lasting peace in rural areas. ICT has been seen a means of providing accessible and affordable education, while marginalized groups will use it to play a key role in economic development.

Over the last few years, some of this has come about. Due to the policies implemented by the govt. especially with regard to telecom, Pakistan has seen the growth of broadband at a good pace. Though penetration is still at 0.66% as of December 2010 with 1,140,781 broadband subscribers as compared to 643,892 at the end of December, 2009, it still shows a 77% growth over the last calendar year with 1000 cities covered to date.

The path ahead is still not easy. One of the great challenges of broadband is to provide service to potential customers in areas of low population density, such as to villages and small towns. In cities where the population density is high, it is easier for a service provider to recover equipment costs, but for each rural area it’s tougher as each area may require expensive equipment to get connected and for few customers. The quality of service for internet service providers too remains a question mark. This is mainly due to old copper media for landline connections which prevents reliable service available for home-users who are 1,500 meters or farther from the telephone exchange. Some of these challenges are being mitigated with help from the USF (Universal Service Fund) which has been running rural telecom projects to provide basic telephony and data services in several remote areas of Pakistan. The USF backing on rural projects have changed the focus of telecom operators from urban towards rural population. Until now, contracts have been awarded for Rural Telecom Projects to provide a subsidy of PKR 4.2 billion in total. All these projects aim to provide services in 12,000 un-served muzas. These projects have started bearing fruits as the number of previously un-served muzas where service has been provided has reached 3,500. In addition to this, it is mandatory for telecom operators in rural areas where USF is providing subsidy to power their infrastructure through renewable energy sources. So far, 66 Base stations are on solar. However the future is a long way away.

Broadband can be the great enabler that restores Pakistani rural’s economic well-being and opens doors of opportunity for all to pass through, no matter who they are, where they live, or the particular circumstances of their individual lives. With the escalating costs of living especially with the rise of fuel prices, the economics of rural sustainability are in question which rural broadband can resolve.  Even just a rupee jump in oil means people that are commuting to work can no longer make that economically viable.  Going to the next town to shop becomes an economic hardship.  The shifting of the economics is causing a lot of people’s livelihoods to disappear, at a time where rural broadband could provide clean, industry-sustainable jobs working for corporations that are physically located anywhere in the world.  Many more people would subscribe to high speed if they could turn it into an income supplement based out of the home.

But as with all technologies it’s not just about the infrastructure – it’s how people can rally around accepting their own full potential and that requires a change the mindsets. Rural poverty suffers from social isolation and lack of updated education.  The dream career of a matric passed student here is to get a low-level govt. job. Anything else is taken at blank. The second trouble is the lack of leadership. No tribal leaders shows up at any initiative, no teachers from the schools are  available for tutoring and worse even the MPs in the area never visit their own areas. So the ideal outcomes are hampered by the unwillingness of the leadership to hear what’s possible. Thus building in new capacity or new buildings is more of a wastage of capacity unless one can also take care of the systemic issues.

The resistance that rural Pakistanis have shown toward towards what is their greatest opportunity at improving their lifestyles is part of a great systemic  responses that will have to be addressed before rural broadband will take off. These anti-literacy, anti-technology rural attitude barriers will have to be broken. It will mean answering questions such as how do we educate our leaders who are not in school?  How do we educate teachers when there are not budgets for professional development for educators and at the end of the day it will come down to leadership.  If leaders are not keeping up with what’s possible through trends, etc, then it hampers the rest of us, and right now we have a generational inertia that is incredibly damaging.

The main thing that needs to change especially is youth’s readiness to accept change and to pay attention to what is happening around them, both locally and globally, and to give the youth an opportunity to receive current education and showcase their skills. Only than will the chasm ever be bridged.

Published in Dawn Images: 13th June, 2011

The Future of Digital Marketing: Pakistan 2015


It’s sad that at every turn we tend to focus on the negatives when this great country really offers endless opportunities amidst all this chaos – if one is focused to see the forest for the trees. Because of a lack of legacy infrastructure to burden us down, the marching advent of technology and telecom is shaking up the old and ensuring that Pakistan is coming of age in one of the fastest of the new growth industries such as Digital Media and Marketing which will only go up and up over the next decade.

Let me start by making a bold prediction. Expect 15% of all advertising in Pakistan to shift to digital, interactive, mobile, social and online video over the next five years. Why is it bold, because currently digital spending is estimated at US $5 Million and if the prediction were to come true, we’re looking at an amount hovering in the $40 -$50 million USD range. That’s a growth by a factor of 10 in just 5 years. It’s an impossible figure at first sight but like in the rest of the world, the increasing consumer connectivity (4 million+ broadband connections by 2013 – Source: PTA), Mobile and social technologies are rapidly evolving the very definition of marketing and commerce in our country and the on-coming world of 3G / 4G technologies, cloud computing, mobility and even SMS/WAP based services will quickly bring this prediction about. With this in mind, the following will be growth areas in our country over the next few years:

Prediction #1: The Ubiquitous Mobile Eco-system

If you think the Telecom sector is huge right now, wait for a few years. With close to 60 million phones and 90 million SIMs providing the foundation, already without a doubt the next big thing is going to be mobile. You maybe getting tired of hearing about how it’s going to happen, but it is coming and coming soon and it’s going to be not just about phones, it will be an entire ecosystem built around the mobile – any service, anytime, anywhere and on any screen.  Bring in location based services, m-commerce and Proximity forms of marketing enabled by a million strong SME sector and it’s a no brainer that mobile-assisted shopping will be integrated into the physical and m-commerce especially will become a necessary part of multi-channel retailing and an important component of Point of Purchase Promotions. With that we can portend the rise of mobile comparison shopping, mobile coupons, mobile affiliates and ever more SMS services. Add in social networks which are being promoted on even the Chinese mobiles, we can easily perceive that social media and social commerce on the mobile device will be a big part of our marketing efforts. For the marketers the challenge in this regard will be even more platform fragmentation.

 

Prediction #2: Digital Marketing Will Be About New Possibilities

Digital marketing will be about connecting information that’s otherwise not connected to create new possibilities and experiences. If my own personal experiences in game development are taken as an example, applying game mechanics to the customer journey, particularly product awareness/brand discovery – with levels, engaging fun challenges, and certain rewards can be very effective way to market your own brands even now and in the future will be certain to grow as ‘experiential marketing’ takes over from traditional activations. You’ve heard life is a game … this time we’ll be living it especially as augmented technologies come into play in this country – some we’re developing even now. For those who’d like to see what the Pakistani marketing world can be like in 2015 Google ‘Nike London Grid’

Prediction #3: TV Will Still Rule But The Focus To Something New Will Come

In a Feb 2010 published report by the European Interactive Advertising Association (IALS), the number of hours that the average person spends connected to the internet in Spain now exceeds that spent watching television. The study, conducted in 15 European countries, revealed that people in Spain spent an average of 13.3 hours per week connected to the internet compared to 13 hours in front of the television. There is quite a difference between age groups, with younger people spending most time online, while those over 55 years of age almost exclusively use only television. Whilst on the same note a study by Ipsos Reid last fall found that Canadians are spending more than 18 hours a week online, compared with 16.9 hours watching television. In the UK, According to a Sept 2009 news report by the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), online has overtaken television to become the biggest single medium growing to 1.75 billion pounds, with the medium accounting for 23.5 percent of all spend, ahead of television. If the European and Canadian trends are to be taken as a benchmark for our world in the future, than there will be a major shift in advertising from being predominantly TV focused to something new. The economic drivers are already compelling marketers to try their hands on digital.

Prediction #4: Digital will continue to remain a Paradox

Digital marketing will always remain a challenging paradox for the traditional marketers because the way currently marketers think about digital is flawed, fully racked as they are with a mindset tuned towards providing immediate gratification, a one-off mentality and a propensity to constantly chase the next shiny object. Understanding conversations, the loss of control, co-creation, engagement are forms which will take time before they’ll be manifested in the marketing communications here.

It can be said that digital technologies have changed everything, not because of the speed of access but because there is a direct connection to what we want which is always on. This has changed the experience from one which used to be disruptive (turning on the PC to check email e.g.) to embedded (checking email on the phone whilst on the go) and being integrated into everything we do. This is the same technology that will be powering our media and marketing over the next decade and giving us continuous hope and reason for bringing our country into the developed world at an extremely fast pace.

A truly connected world is going to be a radically different world from the world we currently inhabit and understand. It will be a world where mobile devices and computers will be as prevalent as the air we breathe. It will be where social media will compete against mass media and real time ‘Now’ will complement the traditional forms of ‘Search’. It will be a world where Apps will compete against ads and context will be king. The cloud, semantics, Android, mashups, mobile, social graphs & social-spheres, user targeting,  HTML5, location-based, gaming, ad exchanges, path to conversion, 3D, channel interaction, HD video, augmented reality, data visualisation, apps and even more, and all present even on the lowly Chinese devices will stand to drive the consumer on a different path to purchase than the current models. Already the trends show that consumer preferences are already shifting towards the digital landscape. We’re watching Indian soaps on YouTube, banking through our mobile phones, finding life partners and ordering grocery online. What happens when these technologies become embedded in our lives? We’re already witness to the decline of the ‘Broadcast Business models’ from newspapers & magazines to TV & music, none command the stature of previous decades and as technology progresses they’ll lose their importance even more. With this will come the end of noise & interruption form of advertising and the rise of context, relevance and real experiences for brand building.  Consumer behavior will continue to change as technology evolves and permeates even more into our lives, giving greater influence and control to the consumers over the relationships and the experiences that they choose to have with the brands.