While the government mulls the strategy of improving mobile internet in Pakistan by offering up 5G licenses, it is important to take stock of how telecom companies have received the news of additional spectrum in recent times, and the subsequent infrastructural upgrades that come with it.

Experts across the world argue that it is not the maximum speed being offered up that counts—it is the lowest common denominator in the overall ecosystem that truly determines how connected we are. This means that there is a need to strengthen the existing 4G spectrum and provide access to all, rather than just offering 5G up to a select few in major urban centres of the country.

With the government planning to open up auction for the new spectrum licenses at the end of 2022 or early 2023, it is unclear whether this will achieve anything beyond the milestone reached in acquiring the technology itself. In all likelihood, the benefits the government wants from 5G in terms of greater connectivity and better speeds can be brought about through proper investment in the existing 4G infrastructure.

A look at our 4G penetration numbers provides an answer to the future course of action as well. Only 43 percent of the existing user base currently has access to 4G—even now, 45 percent of the customer base of telecom providers do not even use broadband. And then finally, there is 15 percent of the population that does not have telecom coverage. These are the areas to address. With a population of over 220 million people, it is important to first ensure that the maximum number of people have access to the base-level technology, rather than improving when only certain segments can benefit.

Pakistan’s internet revolution can only fully take place when there is more investment in access to digital technology and developing the necessary skill set for citizens to benefit from this. 4G speeds are good enough for us to run digital markets and maximise the use of the online space; but only if more people are online.

This is also why the government’s hopes of getting extra revenue through the sale of 5G licences may not work. With telecom companies already struggling with the costs that come about with investment in internet technology, interest in the auction at the end of the year may remain low. We are still quite a long way from properly using 5G technology and it is hoped that the government brings in the necessary policy adjustments that can eventually bring about its use in Pakistan.