Smartphone users in Pakistan continue to rely on imported technology. Since the Pakistani rupee continues to slide against the dollar, it makes sense that the government decided to team up with the private sector to make mobile phones affordable for everyone.
The newly launched “Smartphone for Everyone” initiative relies on the installment sale method to increase the purchasing power of consumers. However, it is important to realize that affordability is not the only variable driving the digital divide in the country.
The Government considers the ‘Smartphone for All’ initiative as the next step towards a digital Pakistan. It aims to bridge the digital divide by bringing “youth, women and rural communities” into the digital ecosystem. The intent is to improve the social and economic indicators of development and to promote the digital economy.
Smartphones have proven to be the most effective development tool all over the world. They make service delivery faster, cheaper and reliable. So, this step makes sense. But affordability is not enough to bridge the development gap. And the connectivity infrastructure won’t solve the puzzle either.
Availability of network infrastructure is a prerequisite for digital inclusion. And with a coverage gap of 20 per cent, Pakistan needs infrastructure investment as much as it needs smartphone financing (the telecom sector needs to be heard and facilitated before it collapses).
But what we need most is for the discussion of the digital divide to move from access to use, and better than personalization. Discussion restricted access to smartphone use for instant messaging and video calling (two of the top three online activities recorded for smartphone users in Pakistan). If the definition of digital inclusion expands to include social and economic opportunity and impact, we need a non-economic lens to see the barriers to digital adoption in Pakistan.
why? Consider this. Pakistan scored 43.96 against the South Asian average of 51.82, on the Mobile Connectivity Index (MCI) 2021 (published by the GSMA, a collaborator on the Smartphone for All Initiative). The MCI Index measures countries’ performance against key enablers of mobile connectivity. These enablers include infrastructure, availability, consumer readiness, content and services. Of course, if these enablers are poor, they become barriers to digital adoption.
Pakistan has the lowest consumer readiness score, 26.52 (against an average of 50.22). Mobile phone ownership makes up only 20 percent of MCI’s consumer readiness dimension, with Pakistan achieving the highest score (47.23).
The picture becomes even bleaker when considering the other two sub-dimensions of consumer readiness. Pakistan scored 30.72 in basic skills (regional average 43.63) and a miserable 11.97 in gender (South Asian averages at 48.65). Pakistan’s score has improved by 4 points in the basic skills dimension and 0.58 points in gender parity since 2014.
What do these strange numbers tell us? Lack of literacy and digital skills are the two biggest barriers to digital adoption in Pakistan. Women are still excluded from the digital ecosystem as they were from all other areas of the economy and society. Therefore, making smartphones affordable will not help achieve the intended social and economic outcomes that the government is pinning on the Smartphone for All initiative.
According to the MCI 2021 report, the largest number of respondents chose “difficulty reading and writing” as the most important limitation to mobile Internet use. Pakistan ranks just above Guatemala and Senegal in this indicator. Respondents also cited “lack of support for learning how to use the mobile internet” as a problem. Most of them are still unaware of voice assistants and other tools that can help them make use of the internet without having to read or write.
Also, a large number of respondents also said that mobile internet has nothing to do with them, and they clearly assume that it is limited to making calls and watching videos. It is therefore not surprising that only a few of the respondents said they used the (mobile) Internet to access government services.
This means that the lack of literacy and awareness skills makes smartphones more or less useless for the vast majority of Pakistanis, especially in rural areas.
Smartphones can only bridge the digital and development divides if consumers are aware of their use. It should be understood that the digital divide is much deeper and more complex than device ownership. It is rooted in the structural inequality existing in a two-way relationship. Digital proliferation will only exacerbate social and economic inequalities if non-economic barriers to digital adoption are not addressed.
Mobile learning will not help children learn to read and write if their parents remain unaware of its existence, let alone its use. Women will not be able to access maternity healthcare if they remain on the sidelines, in terms of access and use as well as knowledge. Without transformative social change, women will remain on the margins. In short, the digital divide is intersectional. It is gendered, educational and demographic.
Affordability and infrastructure issues are also real. Pakistan may be heading towards a communications breakdown in the near future if these concerns are not addressed. But no plan will help the country exploit digital proliferation to achieve comprehensive human and economic development if the discussion does not move from access to use.
Pakistan’s digital politics needs a social and human perspective. The discussion must move forward and narratives must change. Until then, smartphones aren’t for everyone — not in Pakistan.
The writer is a research assistant at the Graduate Institute of Development, Lahore College of Economics.