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The African opportunity
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 29 - 04 - 2004

Next week, Telecom Africa will return to Cairo. Niveen Wahish previews the information and communications technology conference and exhibition
Telecom Africa, the information and communications technology (ICT) conference and exhibition, last took place in Cairo in 1994. The event, organised by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) -- a United Nations special agency -- has been taking place since 1986.
Tarek Kamel, senior advisor to the Egyptian minister of communications and information technology, describes the event as a "platform". It does not seek to compete with commercial exhibitions, he said, explaining that it instead brings policy makers together with regulators, regional and international operators, manufacturers and investment bodies to discuss issues of regional concern. Among these issues is investment and finance in the telecommunications sector, the future of wireless telecommunication, broadband and the future of regulation and deregulation of this sector in Africa.
The importance of this event lies in that Africa is still growing in the area of ICT, said Kamel. "The penetration of telecom services is far lower than the international average," he said. He added that Africa still requires much development in the areas of fixed lines, mobile phones and the Internet.
Kamel stressed that this development gap represents an opportunity for Egyptian companies to export their services and experience, and the upcoming event will provide Egypt with the chance to showcase its advances in the area of ICT. Egypt has come a long way in improving its telecommunications services and information society and now is promoting itself as the centre for telecom services in Africa and the Arab world. "We are trying through the strong presence of Egyptian companies at the event to show that Egypt has the know-how, the cadres and that it can really be the gateway to Africa in telecom services," he said. But the conference will not serve to merely showcase Egypt, since "it's a regional event," stressed Kamel.
With over 200 participants, the event will feature the latest technology, products and services including mobile solutions, operators, the Internet, broadband, network access providers, next- generation networks, satellite, telecom networks and computer hardware, software, components and accessories.
A three-day forum called Advantage Africa will also take place. Forum participants will examine the regional challenges and opportunities in the area of ICT. They will examine what kinds of policies are best suited to a region where mobile phone use exceeds that of fixed line networks. Given the lack of fixed line infrastructure across the continent, the forum will also look at whether mobile and wireless technologies are viable alternatives for promoting the information society in Africa and whether the existing wireless infrastructure could enable a transition to next-generation networks, or what other access technologies could be used for rolling out high-speed Internet services. Case studies of companies doing business in Africa will also be presented.
And given that it is the first regional meeting since the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) was held in Geneva last December, when the Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action for a Digital Solidarity Agenda were announced, the forum will look at what has been accomplished so far and what remains to be done before the second phase of WSIS is held in Tunis next year. Workshop sessions will also address Internet governance, e- readiness indicators and developing local content and software.
Several initiatives are due to be launched during the event, one of which is the Egyptian broadband initiative to promote high-speed Internet services. "The world today does not count the number of Internet subscribers only, but counts the number of broadband subscribers." Kamel said. He added that the cost and time needed for service installation have been dramatically reduced in Egypt.
On the African level there are also several initiatives due to be announced. According to Kamel, one of them is a regional broadband initiative; another seeks to connect African countries efficiently through Internet exchange points. E-learning applications will also be discussed.
A set of initiatives for providing personal computers, Internet services and Internet exchange points to Africans are being prepared to be presented to donors in bids for financing.
Alongside the main conference and exhibition, several other events will be taking place. One is the youth forum, entitled Access Africa, which will bring together some 100 university students from across Africa to participate and share their views and broaden their knowledge of this sector. Telecom Africa will also host the Telecom Development Symposium, bringing together 100 professionals of middle to upper-level management from 53 countries to discuss regional development of the sector. On 2 May, the Arab Business Forum for ICT will hold its annual conference.

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