ISLAMABAD: While Covid-19 has been a catalyst in accelerating Pakistan’s digital transformation, there is a critical need for strategic reforms and a change in the mindset of the government to sustainably capitalize on Pakistan’s digital potential. This was the collective agreement at Tabadlab’s policy roundtable titled Connecting People: Covid-19 Lessons for Digital Policy, organised in Islamabad on Monday.
The discussion featured digital industry leaders, including Aamir Ibrahim (CEO, Jazz), Irfan Wahab (CEO, Telenor), Jehan Ara (CEO, The Nest I/O), Naureen Hayat (Co-founder Tez Financial Services), and representing the government, Amer Hashmi (Chairperson of the Special Technology Zones Authority). The roundtable was hosted by Mosharraf Zaidi, a Senior Fellow at Tabadlab.
The panel discussed how Covid-19 had brought a global demand for digital access and solutions to overcome the challenges of the pandemic. However, this opportunity was not captured completely due to suboptimal government support and industry preparedness. Irfan Wahab highlighted this point by pointing to the limited spectrum available to the telecommunication companies in Pakistan. He said that in many other countries, government regulators had expanded the spectrum during the pandemic emergency to allow smoother access for citizens to high-speed mobile internet. However, in Pakistan similar requests were not entertained by the government whose focus remained on maximizing revenue from spectrum sales.
Jazz CEO, Aamir Ibrahim added to this need for policy interventions for long-term impact. He said,” As long as we continue to think that telecom companies are rich and we should milk them for taxes today, we’re never going to think about the future. This is the inherent disconnect between the three key stakeholders: the investors or operators, the governments, and the end-users, who wants the best service for free.”
He continued to say that Pakistan needs a clear mandate guided directly by the Prime Minister that puts a smartphone in every Pakistan’s hand and broadband in every house. This cannot be achieved if we continue to perceive the telecom companies as tax sources to be continually squeezed.
Chairperson of the Special Technology Zones Authority Amer Hashmi acknowledged that there was a mindset shift required within the government in how it sees its role in leading Pakistan’s digital transformation. He said, “When your country is the lowest in the region in terms of [digital] development, this means that there is more opportunity to fast-track growth.” He added, “The state has to be a leader in this digital transformation because it has the financial resources, land allocation, the people and access to global markets.” The Special Technology Zones Authority is now taking the lead in developing technology zones, bringing ten strategic ministries and departments together to enable reform.
Among some of the obstacles to more rapid adoption of fintech and digital payments, despite great initiatives such as the government’s instant payment system Raast is higher taxation, said Tez Financial’s co-founder Naureen Hayat. “Cash from a customer’s perspective is still cheaper than digital. This perception comes as a result of taxes and extra charges.” Ms. Hayat also emphasized the need for greater data centralization through Nadra, for instance. CEO of tech incubator Nest I/O struck a note of caution in terms of citizen privacy. “We are sending lots of data to telecom operators, the government and tech companies. As these numbers continue to grow, what are we going to do about data protection?” she said.
The recent discussion is a part of Tabadlab’s series of policy roundtables that bring leading experts from around the world to discuss matters of local, regional and global policy relevance. Monday’s conversation had a prestigious in-person audience from finance, development, technology, and government, with a larger global audience connecting remotely on YouTube.