Facilitating IoT Ecosystem: Pakistan’s Comprehensive Regulatory Framework
Akhund Forbes, Karachi
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a network of interconnected devices and the technology that enables communication between devices and the cloud, as well as between devices themselves. The rapid progress of technology has facilitated the emergence of the IoT. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has demonstrated a proactive approach in acknowledging the potential of the IoT sector. In order to foster innovation and adhere to global benchmarks, the PTA has developed a regulatory framework for Short Range Devices (SRD) and terrestrial IoT services to facilitate the establishment of a flourishing IoT ecosystem within Pakistan.
The Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organization) Act 1997 (the ‘PTA Act’), which grants the PTA the authority to regulate and supervise telecommunications services, including IoT, is the genesis of the PTA’s efforts to influence the IoT landscape in Pakistan. In addition, the Rolling Spectrum Strategy 2020–2023 provides clear directives to the PTA to prioritise the development of the IoT ecosystem, with an emphasis on efficient spectrum allocation and utilisation.
The establishment of licensing categories is a vital component of this regulatory framework. The purpose of developing these categories is to provide an arrangement that can effectively support a diverse array of IoT services and applications. This framework aims to maximise the utilisation of both licensed and unlicensed frequency bands.
Exclusively assigned frequency bands
This category encompasses cellular mobile operators and other licensees with unique frequency allocations. These licence-holders have the exclusive right to provide IoT services within the frequency bands specified to them. Interested parties must submit requests to the PTA for review by the Frequency Allocation Board (FAB) to effectuate specific frequency allocations.
Shared frequency bands
This category includes IoT services that operate in shared frequency bands. It includes SRD bands, Ultra-Wideband (UWB) and Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) licences. While these services have access to a shared spectrum, they must follow the PTA’s unique requirements. Section 29 of the PTA Act necessitates compliance with restrictions, criteria and type approval. To obtain type approval, manufacturers of SRD, UWB and IoT devices will require a Type Approval Certificate under the Type Approval Technical Standards Regulations 2021 (the ‘2021 Regulations’) and the Type Approval Technical Standards (Amendment) Regulations 2022 (the ‘2022 Regulations). The 2022 Regulations list SRD, UWB and IoT devices as a category of Terminal Equipment which requires a certification under the 2021 Regulations from the PTA confirming that the type/model of Terminal Equipment conforms to the technical standards prescribed by the PTA. Continuing compliance with Regulations is required and some certificates may require periodic renewal. IoT devices operating in these bands must also avoid interfering with primary services.
The introduction of LPWAN licences for IoT service providers is a notable addition to Pakistan’s telecommunication regulatory framework. These licences are subject to particular limitations and operate under the Consumer Voice and Data Services licensing framework. IoT operators with LPWAN licences must follow power limitations, secondary frequency utilisation and interference laws to ensure that their operations do not affect core services.
Research and Development (‘R&D’)
Recognising the significance of encouraging innovation and R&D in the IoT sector, the PTA has incorporated provisions in the regulatory framework for non-commercial test and trial operations. For an initial eight-week period, entities engaged in R&D are exempt from procuring a standard IoT LPWAN licence, allowing them to operate with up to five devices. However, for continued operation beyond this period, a formal licence is required.
Safety and reliability
To protect the interests of consumers and the integrity of IoT networks, the PTA has laid down the following conditions and guidelines:
- Safety Compliance: To mitigate any potential damage from electromagnetic fields, IoT devices must adhere to the International Commission for Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) standards. This ensures that consumer safety is considered during device design and operation.
- Device Reset: Terminal equipment used in IoT applications should feature a ‘reset to factory settings’ capability. This feature enables the secure and dependable operation of IoT devices, thereby enhancing the user experience.
- Data Management: Licensees offering IoT services must comply with all applicable data management laws and regulations. This includes strict compliance with privacy, security and retention requirements. This is because data protection and privacy are of paramount importance in the IoT ecosystem.
The PTA’s comprehensive SRD and Terrestrial IoT services framework underscores the country’s commitment to promoting a robust and innovative IoT ecosystem. Pakistan is positioned to play a pivotal role in the advancement of IoT technology within the region by harmonising industry practices with global standards and implementing stringent norms. With the right regulatory framework in place, Pakistan is on course to leverage the innovative potential of the IoT sector, fuelling economic growth and technological innovation for years to come.
 Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organization) Act 1996, Act No.XVII of 1996 at www.pta.gov.pk/assets/media/pta_act_consolidated_footnotes_11012022.pdf accessed 14 November 2023.
 Type Approval Technical Standards Regulations 2021, S.R.O. 1172 (I)/2021 at https://pta.gov.pk/assets/media/notification_ta_reg_2021_20092021.pdf accessed 14 November 2023.
 Type Approval Technical Standards (Amendment) Regulations 2022, S.R.O. 1515 (I)/2022 at https://pta.gov.pk/assets/media/type_approval_amendment_reg_2022_09-09-2022.pdf accessed 14 November 2023.