Users, subscribers and SIM cards: counting apples, oranges and sometimes sour grapes in Pakistan’s telecom sector

Posted on December 2, 2018  /  0 Comments

This is an opinion piece written by LIRNEasia’s CEO Helani Galpaya, published in the Economy Watch section of the Pakistan Observer on Sunday, 02 December 2018.

An excerpt of the piece was published online.

The original text which was submitted to the publication is given below:

Recent articles in all major news media have commented on the contrast between a survey which found only 17% of the population (21.6 million people) between 15-65 had used the Internet, versus the Pakistan Telecom Authority’s (PTA’s) claim of 58.3 million “Internet subscribers.” Surely both can’t be right – or can they?

The first thing to note is that this is a classic case of “apples vs oranges”.

The LIRNEasia research was a representative survey of 98% Pakistanis between the ages of 15-65. The survey was part of the 22-country AfterAccess research. The sampling methodology has been tried and tested in many countries since 2007, received the approval of National Statistical Officers (NSOs) of various countries and been published as official data by the ITU,  – the International Telecommunication Union, the UN body which deals with all things Internet and telecom. The randomized sample in Pakistan drawn by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics based on the 2017 census. The randomness of selection at every stage of sampling enabled researchers to talk to 2,000 individuals (in 2,000 households) and to extrapolate that to the whole 15-65 population (with a statistical margin of error of ±3.3%).

The survey asked all respondents (in Urdu) the equivalent of “Have you ever used the Internet, including using Google, Facebook, email, WhatsApp…?”. Those answering “yes” are the people who know of, and remember using the Internet as commonly understood. This number, when extrapolated to the 15-65 population was 17% or 21.6 million people.

But, we know that many phones use data in the background (passive) regardless of user activity. Assuming all smart and feature phone owners have background data use, we can arrive at a figure of 41.8 million active or passive Internet users aged 15-65. Then, let us assume that some children aged 5-14 use data (e.g., watching YouTube videos on their parents’ phone). Let us assume that for every three Internet users aged 15, there is one Internet user aged 5-9, and that for every two Internet users aged 15, there is one aged 10-14. Let us also assume that the percentage of Internet users aged 66+ is the same as the percentage of Internet users aged 60-65 (a generous assumption since it is accepted that the oldest generations have almost negligible Internet use). We now have 25.1 million active Internet users, and about 44 million active plus passive users (see Table 1).   What should matter to the PTA is are citizens knowingly using the Internet.  What matters to telecom operators is the higher 44 million number of revenue generating users, irrespective of whether they know they are using the Internet.

The PTA reports 58.3 million “subscribers” for the same period. The PTA reports what mobile operators report, and mobile operators report active data-using SIMs. But the number of SIMs is not the same as the number of humans. At least 13% of Pakistani’s aged 15-65 have more than one SIM. There are also corporate packages that may not be counted in LIRNEasia’s survey. And there are definitely active data SIMs inside many devices (think the POS terminal in supermarkets/shops). All of these could easily account for the 25% difference between LIRNEasia and PTA numbers.

LIRNEasia data PTA Data
Number of people saying “yes” to “Have you used the Internet?” 21.6 million unique individuals aged 15-65, or 25.1 million aged 5+ (assuming one Internet user aged 5-9 for every three Internet users aged 15, one Internet user aged 10-14 for every two aged 15, and percentage of Internet users aged 66+ is same as the percentage of Internet users aged 60-65) N/A
Number of people who knowingly or unknowingly use the Internet/data (i.e. owners of smart and feature phones) 41.8 million unique individuals aged 15-65, or 44 million aged 5+ (assuming one Internet user aged 5-9 for every three Internet users aged 15, one Internet user aged 10-14 for every two aged 15, and percentage of Internet users aged 66+ is same as percentage of Internet users aged 60-65. Similar assumptions made for smart or feature phone ownership.) N/A
Number of active data-using SIM cards N/A 58,339,814 as reported by operators (
Difference between PTA and LIRNEasia data, as % 25% ()


By focusing only on the gap, or only on the PTA’s refusal to comment, we run the risk of missing the point.  But if ICTs are to put hope in the hearts and money in the pockets of all people, it’s not enough to count SIM cards. We need to know who has those SIM cards, what they do with it, and why they aren’t getting on the Internet. The research shows that women in Pakistan are 43% less likely to have used the Internet compared to men, and that 12% of Internet users have faced some kind of harassment online. Among the long to-do list that should get the attention of policymakers and regulators are: removing the barriers to rural network rollout, re-thinking universal access strategies, giving operators a license renewal framework that eliminates uncertainty, and a heavy focus on digital and media literacy (including digital ethics).

In a different research on the telecom regulatory environment across countries, the excellent performance of the PTA led us to rank it at the top of all league tables, ahead of India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, Philippines and other regional comparators.  Another comparative research on mobile app-based business models was used by the PTA to actively focus on the app economy, encouraging developers, entrepreneurs and investors. In the spirit of connecting all of Pakistan to a safe, economically productive, socially connective and emotionally fulfilling Internet, we hope PTA spends its energies towards paving the long road ahead.

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