16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Informing the futureBy Taha Abdel-Alim *
President Mubarak has instigated a new national project intended to keep Egypt abreast of developments in information and communications technology. The National Information Project, one of many major enterprises introduced under Mubarak's presidency, seeks to capitalise on Egypt's potential to meet the challenges of today's world.
The President's initiative reflects the need to prioritise the development of information technology in Egypt. The importance of this cannot be underestimated, particularly when we note the increasing attention the US accords to a sector that includes the production of computers, software programmes and telecommunications hardware. By 1998 some 6.2 per cent of the US labour force was employed by the industry, which accounts for a staggering 45 per cent of all business investment.
Recent studies demonstrate that information technology has been instrumental in changing the way economies work. Developments in computer, communication and information technology have been central to securing increased US production and are likely to play the same role on the global level.
Since the mid 1990s global use of the Internet has boomed. Internet users have multiplied 33 times in four years, from approximately three million users in 1994 to 100 million users in 1998. In the space of two and a half years the number of companies with sites on the Internet increased 28 fold, from about 27,000 companies in January 1995 to 761,000 companies in June 1997.
Moreover, economic uses of the Internet are compounding year after year. The Internet is used for retail sales, a diversity of banking transactions, stock market sales and purchases, for travel itineraries and ticket purchasing, for the distribution of newspapers and magazines. Clearly, information technology is a factor that determines competitiveness in the international marketplace.
Nevertheless, many parts of the world lag behind in this vital field of development, even some areas of Europe. In fact, in many developing countries, even relatively simpler technologies -- such as telephone services -- are inadequate. If these countries are to counter the spectre of economic marginalisation they must act quickly to close the gap in information technology.
In this respect, there is a clear need for effective deregulation in the field of communications. In particular, it has become imperative to bring in the private sector in in order to reduce costs and to facilitate access to the Internet. Simultaneously, those governments that continue to monopolise their communications services risk falling even farther behind, especially in view of the harsh competition between telephone and satellite companies which is certain to lead to more technological breakthroughs and lower costs.
Proponents of deregulation, however, do not deny that governments should retain some level of control over their communications networks. They also stress that governments should cooperate in order to develop appropriate guarantees for the protection of intellectual property and trade on the Internet. If producers fear that their intellectual property rights are at risk, they will not transmit technical specifications of products over the Internet. And if customers are anxious about the security of the personal banking information they transmit, they will refuse to conclude financial transactions over the Internet.
Communications infrastructure is one of the eight factors making up the general indicator for global competitiveness in the annual report of the Global Economic Forum. This compound indicator measures, among other things, the size, cost and type of communications and information networks used in a particular country, the level of national investment in developing these networks and the degree to which the available services meet the needs of users in general and business in particular. The report proceeds from the basis that an advanced infrastructure supports economic activity. Bearing this in mind, it is interesting to see how Egypt fares in terms of this indicator.
Egypt ranks 16th in the growth of the use of telephones for every 100 inhabitants from 1991 to 1996. Although the rating is relatively high, China, Indonesia and India have achieved, respectively, five, three and two times better rates of progress over the same period. This fact is driven home by another indicator which says that in 1996 Egypt stood at 51 in its ability to meet requests for telephone lines, ranking only higher than the Philippines and Zimbabwe. Egypt also ranks very poorly in the use of wireless communications. At 49, it only tops Russia, Ukraine, India and Zimbabwe. Simultaneously, Egypt stands at 41 in the supply of direct international telephone lines and 52 in the use of mobile phones. These alarming figures signal an urgent need to expand services vital to investment and business.
The global economic performance indicators show weaknesses in terms of the development of scientific and technological research, in general, and of information technology in particular. Egypt stood at 50 in the use of computers for business purposes, at 49 for the number of sites on the Internet and at 41 for the application of new technologies. Worse still, the computer and information industry accounts for less than one per cent of GDP, most of which is made up of consumer products and assembly industries licensed by international companies.
The picture is not as grim as it might appear, however, and the report highlighted several strengths. For example, Egypt ranked 10 in the race to open new sites on the Internet and nine in terms of the percentage of the population engaged in engineering professions. If we stood at only 33 with regard to the level of private investment in research and development, we have a clear indication of one area in which to focus our efforts. President Mubarak's reaffirmation of the government's commitment to develop the information technology industries, and to advance research in general, in conjunction with the positive outcome of the activities of the national Conference for Information Technology, show that Egypt is on target to keep abreast of the information technology revolution.
* The writer is deputy director of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.