TECHNOLOGY complemented by AI creates new businesses and jobs and destroys old ones. The development of AI-based products or their use is not possible without access to the Internet. Disrupting normal models, technology and AI are poised to reign supreme, and our resolution for 2021 should be: Internet for all.
What advantages will the country reap if the government provides high-speed Internet access to all of our population? Here are some illustrations.
A person suspected of having contracted Covid-19 residing in a remote village travels 600 kilometers to a city to be tested. The lab told him to come the next day to pick up the report. The person has two options, both of which are expensive: stay overnight at the hotel or go home and come back the next day to pick up the report. If he had internet access in his village, the lab would share the report on WhatsApp – imagine the time and money saved nationwide and the alternative uses of such a saving. Putting the saved time and money into other uses means more income for the individual and a higher GDP for the country.
In fact, a significant proportion of the population faces health problems but lacks access to good health services. Telemedicine can ensure good medical advice for residents of remote rural areas and small towns – some medical issues will be resolved online while others will require a visit to the doctor. Sound professional advice would make people see a doctor – many deaths and health risks will be avoided.
The time and money saved would benefit everyone.
Thanks to Covid-19, we discovered that it is possible to provide education online. Some sources claim that around 20 million children are out of school. The reasons include remote schools, poverty and child labor to name a few. Providing internet facilities to these children and the flexibility of time that online education allows will give working children time to educate themselves. Properly implemented programs would even educate adults – the dream of 100% literacy could come true.
We are trying to create universities in every nook and cranny of the country. Even if we put together the financial resources to put the infrastructure in place, we cannot have enough good teachers. This scarcity can be compensated by teaching online at the right universities in major cities. Again, a high speed internet connection is required.
Most of the final price that consumers pay for agricultural products like wheat goes to the infamous middleman. Can we eliminate the role of intermediary? Yes! With internet access and using a well-designed app, farmers can directly strike a deal with city-based wholesalers and retailers, bypassing the middleman’s farms. Higher profit margins will encourage farmers to produce even more – thus contributing to poverty reduction.
One of the few businesses that flourished during Covid is e-commerce. However, its benefits have extended to only a small fraction of the population – those with access to the Internet. Like farmers, other rural women and men who make handicrafts do not get a fair return on their skills and efforts due to lack of access to markets. Internet access will allow these skilled people to approach city-based wholesalers and craft retailers directly.
Pakistanis already stand out in the field of freelancing and as a result, IT related exports are increasing rapidly. With high-speed Internet available to more people at home in small towns and remote areas, this activity and therefore computer exports will increase dramatically.
For more than seven decades, we’ve spent enough taxpayer dollars on low-performing physical projects – on school buildings that house cows, not students, on hospitals without doctors, and on roads without traffic. Providing high-speed Internet access to all would be an investment with very high returns. With the AI disruption just starting, we can’t predict all the benefits at this point.
The PIDE reform program recommends “Internet for all” in the near future. To achieve this, if the government is to sell spectrum (i.e. frequency) to mobile operators at a nominal price, it must be done. If it requires 5G, that should become the number one priority. If access requires more mobile operators, this should be guaranteed. All of these efforts should be focused on “The Internet for All” and not on generating income from selling spectrum at exorbitant prices.
Those who can afford to pay for the Internet should be required to pay; those who cannot be offered a targeted subsidy. In the initial period, accessing the provision will require some expense – but it would yield returns, in the near and distant future, in forms known and unknown to date.
The writer is a researcher at PIDE.
Posted in Dawn on May 11, 2021