Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has decided to review the Wireless Local Loop (WLL) regime in Pakistan as its subscriber base is on a constant decline, it is learned.

By the end of July 2020, the total number of broadband subscribers in Pakistan was around 83 million and mobile broadband subscriptions stood at 81 million. The presence of non-cellular operators in general and WLL operators in particular is negligible in comparison with cellular operators.

The frequency assignments will expire in 2024, and there is a need to have clarity on the future of WLL regime so as to allow WLLOs ample time to prepare their business plans, a official document available with ProPakistani revealed.

WLL regime was introduced in Pakistan in 2004 in accordance with the de-regulation policy 2003 with spectrum assignments in 450 MHz, 479 MHz, 1900 MHz, and 3.5 GHz bands. WLL licenses were distinguished from mobile cellular licenses through geographical and mobility restriction; regional licenses with single-cell mobility.

A total of 93 WLL licenses were issued to 18 companies in 2004 for various regions of Pakistan in frequency bands of 450, 479, 1900, and 3500 MHz. Some of the operators failed to complete initial mandatory roll-out obligations despite grant of extension in timelines and hence their respective licenses were canceled/terminated.

PTCL, Telecard, and WorldCall had a combined subscriber base of around 2.4 million in 2008-09 which kept on improving till 2012-13. Wi-Tribe, Wateen, and Sharp also made some impact during this time frame. However, since 2012-13 — since the emergence of 3G and 4G services  — there has been a constant decline due to extensive rollout by the mobile operators.

Some of the operators have multiple frequencies assignment in their licensed regions. After the termination of several licenses and Telecard becoming FLL operators, there are still ten (10) operators with eighty (80) licenses. However, the subscriber base is on a constant decline.

Since the introduction of the WLL regime in Pakistan in 2004, there have been enormous technological developments aimed at the efficient utilization of scarce resources i.e. frequency spectrum. Some of the spectrum bands assigned to WLL operators have already been identified for higher value mobile broadband services like 2100/1900 MHz and also for 5G i.e. 3.5 GHz.

The most important being the 3.5 GHz band wherein the 5G network is deployed in many countries.

MoIT&T in one of its Policy Directive for “Test and Development of Future Technologies Particularly for Fifth Generation (5G) Wireless Networks in Pakistan” identified 2.6 GHz and 3.5 GHz as a best-suited spectrum for 5G networks.

PTA accordingly published a “Framework for Test and Development of Future Technologies Particularly for Fifth Generation (5G) Wireless Networks in Pakistan, in line with GOP Policy Directive. CMPak (Zong), PMCL (Jazz), and Telenor have conducted 5G trials in 2.6 GHz and 3.5 GHz spectrum while PTCL & Ufone joint trial is under process.

As per sources, an in-depth analysis of the performance of WLLOs over the years, challenges and opportunities, best regulatory practices for efficient utilization of frequency spectrum, etc will be performed. And to obtain that, PTA has sought comments from all stakeholders.

The stakeholders will be required to respond on a set pattern including the regulatory, technical and financial impediments that affected WLL business adversely, how can the WLL operators sustain their business up to 2024, and does it make a business case for WLL operators to continue operations beyond 2024 if the circumstances remain the same?

Further stakeholders would be required to suggest a regulatory regime beyond 2024 to safeguard WLL business while ensuring efficient spectrum utilization as well as maintaining distinction from cellular mobile/NGMS services and what could be the best utilization of existing WLL frequency bands i.e. 450, 479, 1900 and 3500 MHz?

PTA will analyze stakeholders’ comments while preparing recommendations for the future of WLL regime.