Balochistan’s booming mobile phone industry

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By Malik Siraj Akbar

Balochistan’s large terrain and scattered population has not deterred cellular companies from their drive to reach maximum customers in the rural areas of the province. Cellular companies say the investment dynamics in telecom sector have dramatically changed over the past few years.

“You can no longer confine the telecommunication facilities to a selected social and economic stratum of the rich and educated urban alone,” says a Quetta-based manager working with a leading mobile phone company. Besides the fierce competition between cellular companies to provide more affordable packages and customer-friendly incentives, he says reaching out to the rural population has recently engendered a new phase of the race among these companies.

Reluctant investment:

The representatives of all mobile companies admit that at inception, three to four years ago, they were very reluctant to invest in rural Balochistan, which accounts for 77.91 percent of the province’s total population. They mentioned Balochistan’s large area, extremely small population and multiple geographical features as the main reasons for their reluctance. Balochistan’s population density is 19 per kilometre as compared to 166 for all of Pakistan, 479 in Punjab, 238 in the NWFP, and 216 in Sindh. A business centre manager working with Warid Telecom, explained the sudden rush to the rural areas, “Suppose company ‘A’ launches its services in destination ‘X’. This will oblige all people of destination ‘X’ presently based in Quetta, the provincial capital, for educational and business purposes, to switch to company ‘A’ in spite of the fact that they formerly subscribed to the services of company ‘Y’”.

Therefore, if a company fails to become the first to launch its services in an area, it will not only lose the customers from that locality but the members of that area living elsewhere in the country will also give up their business partnership with that company for economic reasons, he said.

“Now, you identify a place and we will be there the next day even if a destination is not so profitable in terms of money-making,” says another manager. “We are trying to cover the whole province before another company comes and captures the market. Many of these companies still have a strictly centralised structure. The employees in Quetta have to seek the consent of their head offices even if they have to install a small tower in a remote part of the province. Even those working with these companies cynically view this phenomenon calling it a ‘drawback’ from a business point of view. Cellular companies disagree with the notion that Balochistan is economically a poor province with bleak investment prospects. At least for the telecom industry, they contend, it has proved to be a safe heaven where the public response has been “phenomenally high”.

Better than Karachi:

For instance, a manager says one should see the percentage of Balochistan’s population and then view the number of people who purchase cell phone connections. “Given the small population of our province and the number of customers, I strongly believe that we are doing better than Karachi,” he says. He says only at a single outlet, which he is presently supervising, the number of people who obtain pre-paid and post-paid connections are 700 and 75 per month respectively. According to him, an average outlet in Karachi hardly sells 150 connections in a month.

The cellular companies maintain that they have found Balochistan a better place for investment than what they had presumed about the province before initiating their networks here. “The prospects of investment in telecom sector in Balochistan are very bright. No longer is there the monopoly of a single company in the market. You have to deliver quality services to your customers in order to survive in the market,” said Farooq Jabbar, manager customer operations at Ufone. Easy availability of SIM cards is not absolutely trouble-free in a province which is in the grip of religious and nationalistic terrorism. At many outlets in Balochistan, one does not have to provide any kind of identification while acquiring a phone connection. Until now, none of the cell phone companies that this writer spoke with have devised a workable mechanism to prevent the misuse of the cell phones. Though some companies have established complaint centres, customers shy away from benefiting from such schemes as the process of complaining itself is very complicated.

A manager at Mobilink, requesting anonymity, said his company had recently launched a three-month long campaign to attract retailers to ensure the registration of SIM card buyers with the help of their national Identity Cards (NIC). “All cellular companies are equally worried about the misuse of SIMs,” he stated, adding that Mobilink would get all the customers registered through its software with the help of the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). When queried on what was being done to grapple with unsolicited and obnoxious phone calls and text messages, the manager said, “But we never receive such complaints”.

If a customer has any complaints then they should come to the company’s office and submit an application along with their NIC against the offending customer, he says. “We can’t take action against the opposite person, against whom charges are being made, without credible proof. After all, he is also a respected customer of ours.” Besides providing calling facilities, the mobile companies proudly boast about the employment opportunities they have created for Balochis. Besides the skilled and qualified persons, Jabbar of Ufone says even poorer people have acquired jobs. “To guard our transmission towers, we have deployed two security guards at each of almost 40 towers. Same goes for other cellular companies. Telecom companies are today providing extremely attractive packages to their employees,” he says.

However, the Mobilink manager regrets that there are more jobs and less qualified people in Balochistan in the telecom sector. “The cream of Balochistan’s youth, after the completion of their education, prefer to stay in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad for better future prospects. They do not come to their home province to serve here,” he says, adding that this was the reason that less qualified people were, as a last resort, employed at higher posts in Balochistan. “But in Karachi or Lahore, you see more competent people working on smaller posts with lower wages because of a lack of opportunity and acute competition there.”

Cellular companies are very optimistic with regards to the future of telecom industry in Balochistan. They believe the industry is most likely to mushroom across the province. “Soon, the whole of Balochistan will be completely covered,” predicts Jabbar. None of these managers agree that the ‘mobile mania’ may one day diminish. “Telecom companies are just like pharmaceutical companies. Companies that manufactured medicines 50 years ago have only improved their credibility rather than losing ground. Mobile companies are on their way to gain more credibility among the masses as they have increasingly become a human necessity rather than being an accessory,” concluded the manager in Mobilink.