|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 March 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
E-commerce e-volutionAfter the retreat of the hyped-up portal frenzy that hit the country a year ago, the success of e-applications appeared to be far-fetched. However, as Yasmine El-Rashidi discovers, things are just starting to roll
It was one of the biggest flops, it seemed, in recent years; the huge portal fiasco that threw many IT gurus fumbling for excuses. There seemed to be no real reason for their grandiose failure, except, as they yet refuse to admit, that they made one giant mistake.
E-commerce quietened down for a while, the only real e-services site retaining any form of consistent momentum being online food delivery's otlob.com. Recently, however, money-making e-waves have started to make themselves felt again. This time, with less hype, more force, and more success than before.
From egyptpresents.com, and masrawy.com, to the likes of more recently launched sites such as blossoms.com, online services are beginning to become the national e-Egypt norm. It seems high time, too, that such a move begins to gain momentum, for the national e-government plan is well into its planning and implementation stages.
E-government, which incorporates the automation of all aspects of the government -- from ministries and police stations, to customs offices, the central administrative office (mugamma), and all elements of citizen-related services -- is already in its preliminary implementation stages.
When one of those first automation launches was announced last October by Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) affiliate Telecom Egypt (TE) -- the nation's provider of land-line telephone services -- many sceptical eyebrows were raised. If the country's biggest IT businessmen could not get the whole e-concept down, why, critics asked, did the government expect to be able to do any better? Telephone e-payment and e- billing services were expected to be a laughing- stock. Unjustifiably so, it turns out.
"The response and usage extended beyond our expectations," says Soumia Abul-Fotouh, senior e- billing consultant at MCIT. "There were over a million online inquiries on the October bill alone. The total number of inquiries is about three million. Given that the number of Internet users in Egypt is one million, that's a remarkable response to the service."
In the first two months since its launch, close to one million Egyptian pounds were channelled through the Internet, representing a total of 2,374 customers. A notable figure given that credit card users currently number an estimated 400,000, and bearing in mind that TE's service has not yet been widely publicised.
"As knowledge of the service becomes more widespread, users will certainly increase. It's still relatively unknown," she says. "That will come with time."
With time, and with the evolution of e-government of which e-billing represents just a sliver.
MCIT is in the process of developing a framework to accelerate the Egyptian e-government initiative. The provision of quality service is one of the most important goals. Telephone bill e-payment is the first pilot project within the e-government framework.
A pilot, however, that seems to have positioned itself for a steady take-off, with just a few minor glitches here and there.
First and foremost is the need to advertise more. Resorting to announcements and special promotions will be needed to encourage the widespread use of e-payment. As well as the option for those hundreds of thousands of telephone subscribers who do not own credit cards.
Apparently one of the main obstacles to e-billing right now -- as described by the project team -- is the limited use in Egypt of pre-paid credit cards. It is a big problem, but one, they firmly believe, that can easily be tackled.
"There is a need to initiate agreements with banks for the offering of magnetic cards," Abul-Fotouh says.
That is not the only issue. Customers, she says, always bring up the issue of security.
"Today, the concern around the world is the service; its quality and promotion," Fotouh says, explaining that security is no longer the main e-related issue on service providers' minds. "That's what requires special attention. Customers complain that not enough features are offered. They want to be able to do things like access call details, renew, apply, or cancel telephone subscriptions online. The applications need to provide functionality beyond simple presentment and payment."
That, she empahsises, is the priority.
"The customer is the concern," she says. "This is just a pilot project, so it's our test to find the optimum channel through which to communicate with the customer. We need to perfect the functionality and quality of this service before trying to launch other e-related services."
It has been a good start, but to those involved, there is still much work to be done. The figures are impressive, and the response commendable, but the benefits to both customers and internal operations have not yet reached targets. The big bang of e- billing services, it is hinted, is yet to come.
To check your telephone bill online, click here: www.mcitel.gov.eg
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