Published in Nov-Dec 2021
MARYLOU MCCORMACK: Can you tell me about yourself and how you came to be at the Universal Service Fund (USF)?
HAARIS M. CHAUDHRY: I started my career with Citibank New York; I also worked with ABN-Amro in Pakistan and Barclays Capital in Dubai. When I moved back to Pakistan in 2012, USF was not on my horizon, although fintech technology was always an area of interest. When I came across the position of Head of Finance at USF, I found their scope of work both interesting and close to my heart; in other words, providing telecommunications services to marginalised communities, connecting them with the rest of the world and bringing convenience to their lives. Technology has always been a passion for me, so the job was interesting and then last year, I was made CEO of USF.
MM: What is the USF and what is its core objective?
HMC: USF was initiated in 2006 by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), to create a fund (contributed to by licenced telecom operators), aimed at providing telecom infrastructure to rural populations not covered by telecom services due to their not being commercially viable. The fund works through a reverse auction process whereby the telecom operator with the lowest bid wins the auction.
MM: How do you define ‘rural areas’ in Pakistan for your scope of work?
HMC: We have two categories: unserved and underserved. Unserved refers to areas where there is a population of 100 and above and where there are no telecommunications services. Underserved are areas that have coverage (maybe it is patchy) but do not have data coverage. Currently, we are providing connectivity to over 62 districts. Very few of these districts are unserved, as most have some telecom coverage; they are mostly underserved or a combination of the two.
MM: In the last decade, what have been the USF’s major contributions to these communities?
HMC: Over 10,000 mouzas (administrative districts) have been covered through the Fund and, as we speak, we are committing approximately Rs85 billion for the development of the telecommunication infrastructure in those areas. So far, 15 million people have been provided with telecom coverage.
MM: Can you outline some of the achievements of the Fund over the last 10 years?
HMC: Most of the work has been done in the last two years. Since its inception, USF has laid down approximately 8,000 kilometres of fibre across Pakistan, and in the last two years we have awarded contracts for an additional 5,000 kilometres of fibre, of which approximately 1,500 kilometres has already been laid. We are aggressively pursuing fibre as the backbone infrastructure and this financial year, we are targeting another 5,000 kilometres and next year we will target a little more than that. In the last two years, the subsidies committed to the Fund have been worth approximately Rs 35 billion. So if we look at the 10 years, from 2007 to 2019, the total subsidy committed was Rs 65 billion, 60% of which was committed in the last two years. So the projects have seen almost 400% growth.
MM: What are these projects?
HMC: We have three types of projects. The first one is fibre, whereby we are connecting all the Union Councils (UCs) in Pakistan that do not have fibre yet. The second is the highways and motorways project, where we have provided 1,800 kilometres of connectivity, including 3G and 2G services on the Makran Coastal Highway and we are targeting another 500 kilometres on the M3 and M5 highways in southern Punjab this financial year. The third is high-speed mobile broadband for rural areas, where we put up towers and cover the population with 3G and 4G services – which is where we have covered 15 million people in 10,000 mouzas and 62 districts. This includes all of interior Sindh and southern Punjab, the majority of Balochistan and many districts of KPK.
MM: How challenging is digital adoption in areas where telecom services are now available but people have not necessarily caught up due to literacy or financial limitations?
HMC: There are challenges in terms of digital adoption and there are many reasons for this, not least because access to smartphones may not always be financially viable. However, telecommunications connectivity has made a significant impact on lives in terms of access to information, e-education and financial inclusion. A lot of people have learned to use a smartphone or to use connectivity in a very positive way.
MM: What do you hope to achieve in the next three to five years?
HMC: My vision is to provide connectivity to marginalised communities in a very affordable and efficient way. The larger vision is to establish USF as a leading public sector entity able to compete with any corporate organisation. The three pillars to achieving this are merit, excellence and discipline. Once these pillars are in place, we have the core values: D for diversity, I for integrity, G for growth, I for innovation, and T for teamwork. By bringing all of them together and making them part of our daily lives, I am very confident we will achieve this objective. In terms of connectivity, my target is that at the end of three years, at least 35 million people will have access to connectivity.
Marylou McCormack is a former member of Aurora’s editorial team. firstname.lastname@example.org