Access to ICT infrastructure remains an issue in Pakistan. What is being done to bring connectivity to the un-served and under-served segments of the population?

ANUSHA RAHMAN KHAN: We are working on the ICT ecosystem, which means putting the infrastructure together for development of under-served and un-served areas equally with the developed areas of the country. We believe that for the socio-economic development, you have to target the under-served and un-served with the same vigor as the urban areas are targeted by the private sector on their own. So to be able to achieve our goal, we have started numerous projects in the underdeveloped sectors of the country. We are putting as a priority optic fiber cable in the most under-served areas where there is no plan of the private sector to go even in the next 5 to 10 years.

So far we have laid over 5,700 Kilometers of the optic fiber cable in the most under-served/un-served areas. Together with optic fiber cable we have already given out contracts and we have modeled a public/private partnership mode where with along with the telecom companies, we are reaching out to the most under-served/un-served communities in the Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa areas. These are areas with no Telecom companies have any business case to be present again within the next 7 to 10 years.

So this is 35% of the population which was not on the business model of the telecom companies, where the government has already given out the subsidy. It is 14 billion rupees ($135m) worth of contracts given out to the private sector to provide 3G services straight away in those areas where is there is no connectivity.

We are working on developing the eco-system. The infrastructure has to be there. I mean I say it all the time that if William Wordsworth was not born in the right district, you will never have Daffodils. So we need the entrepreneurs to be given the system, the environment in which they can think and in which they can innovate. So we are putting together the first ever technology park in Islamabad. It's on 40—45 acres of land and we are working on it with Korean EXIM Bank who will build it, who will operate it, who will manage the whole IT Park, where we are looking at hosting somewhere like 18,000 IT professionals together with the IT departments of the universities and together with the research and innovation departments to work there in that eco-system where I expect that would be starting in the middle of next years. We are expecting to do the ground breaking on that.

What are the current policy priorities of the Ministry of Information Technology?

ANUSHA RAHMAN KHAN: We have worked on the telecom policy. And this framework is coming. It should have come five years ago but well I wouldn't comment on why it did not come, but now it has been finally formulated. All the stakeholders have been on board. We have made some very solid interventions into the policy. We are offering to give spectrum predictability. We are offering to spectrum reframing. We are offering to have stakeholders talk about how they can decide what they want to do in terms of investments in the country having the expectancy what the spectrum would be available. Then we are also introducing Hotspots concept, which was initially regulated. So we have completely deregulated that. So now, we will have a hotspot possibilities and we are expecting new investment to come into the country. We did the spectrum auction last year. It was a very successful venture. The companies have already exhausted their spectrum. We introduced 3G and 4G together in the country. They are asking for more spectrum. So we are going to do the second round of auction.

There's opportunity for the new operator to come in. What the plan is, the eco-system is going to work as follows. We are going to make the spectrum available. The government is going to make the spectrum available. The government is going to use the universal service funding for three major projects. For deployment of optic fiber cable. For providing rural telephony, or 3G services straight away to the rural areas. And then to provide eServices.

So we are making 500 tele-centers in the under-served/un-served areas all in one go, putting an investment of 18 billion of rupees ($170m) in that. These tele centers are going to be the termination points of available of infrastructure. So which means that essentially those people who otherwise could be the students for example of a virtual university and do not have access to the hardware, to the infrastructure, could now then come to the tele-centers. And we are putting 20 computers with all the access through solar etc. to the users, basically free of cost so that they could learn, they could be part of the mainstream no matter where they are in the country, they should not have the feeling of deprivation that they do not have access to technology.

So these tele-centers again is a very big project and the most important, the key thing in Pakistan going on at this point in time is that we are partnering with the private sector. So the government is formulating the policies where in the funding is being provided to the private sector to deploy subsidy in the form of a subsidy, which I see this type of a policy is going to go a long way and it will also attain the sustainable development goals that we have just recently signed off.

So if you give the ecosystem and if you can put the infrastructure then sky is the limit, because we believe that we have to have an accelerated digitization model. We need to have a knowledge economy. We have to spur our economic growth, by using technology as the baseline for whatever activities we are doing.

What are the major challenges you are facing in implementing these policies?

ANUSHA RAHMAN KHAN: The challenge is of creating employment opportunities. We have a huge young population. We have close to 200 million population. We are 60% around plus as youth. And they are talented youth. They are graduates, most of them highly qualified.

That's why there is a need to create more awareness about Pakistan to demonstrate to the world that we stand for. For example, we have around 2,000 companies on the Pakistan Software Export Board website who are providing a services to the world. At the moment, we have $2.8bn worth of exports from Pakistan, of which $800m is going from the elancers. So we are the 4th largest elancing country. We are running just behind America, the UK and Ukraine in elancing. So there is a huge potential out there. Now the challenge is how to connect to the rest of the world.

I'm now working on how to communicate to the rest of the world that there is a huge potential over there in Pakistan, which only needs to be tapped. For example, even some services, the software services which are going for in the neighborhood of $30 an hour, in Pakistan you can find the same services for $14 an hour. So how do I make sure that this potential is exposed to the rest of the world and how we are making a win-win situation for all the entities is the challenge that I am facing at this point in time.

I do see that we will be overcoming that challenge. But frankly, I don't get scared of challenges. In fact I don't see anything as a challenge. I only see things as things that need doing. They become a challenge because we don't work on those things. We don't address don't issues and then they become a challenge. But if we address the issues in time, if we take corrective measures, nothing is a challenge. Everything is all there just waiting for us to do it.

What specific programs are in place to support the large youth population?

ANUSHA RAHMAN KHAN: Our government is focusing on the youth and on girls and using ICT to turn them into entrepreneurs. So they are two very important projects that we have kicked off. One project is for the incubation program of setting up a Tech City for young entrepreneurs, giving them the incubation place, giving them the space, the connectivity, and the mentoring that is required to culture an idea into a commercial project. So we have just recently thrown the request for proposals. We are looking at international partners to come forward in this bidding process and to partner with the public sector, with the Ministry of IT, in taking this venture forward. So this is a huge project where we see somewhere like 50 entrepreneurs getting the opportunity, and every six months we are looking at graduating 50 companies. It's a five year project and we expect that we will have huge opportunities created for the youth of this country.

Talking about girls, being a mother, I think the politicians should think like mothers and that's the best way forward. So when I look at the girls in the field, I feel that we need to target them. We need to look at them as a special case. Especially those girls who otherwise do not have the resources to, for example, they are school dropouts or they are going for technical education. Or maybe they are going out for learning other skills like cooking, like painting, stitching. So we have 150 Baitulmals, we call them in our country. These are for the most destitute sector. The girls who are from the absolute poorest background who otherwise do not have the access to resources in the same way. So we are targeting those 150 Baitulmals across the country. And we are expecting to graduate 4,000 girls with a program initiative we have started by the name of Program. So this program, with the policy board of my Ministry, and is going to be now in the public sector within the next three to four weeks.

The program is a tri-partite whereby we are using the virtual university to have developed a program where the young girls are taught how to program. And within six months of this cycle, we are expecting to graduate 4 to 5,000 girls every six months to become entrepreneurs themselves. On graduation, we are going to give them one laptop each and the connectivity so that they could go home and from home they could earn something for themselves. This is going to be an ongoing program. This is something that would require mentoring even after the six months graduation. But we are going in this direction so that I feel that the girls can use ICT for their empowerment.

If they have constraints of going to office work place or if they have constraints otherwise of having access to resources, this we feel is going to be a very good project for engaging with this sector and also by introducing new initiatives, introducing a totally new type of engagement which would be technology driven, which would be quick to learn and which would also mean economic opportunities through means which were otherwise not even conceivable in the very distant past. So I am looking forward to initiation of this program very soon.