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IT summit: at your service
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 11 - 12 - 2003

Minister of Communications and Information Technology talks to Niveen Wahish about the first global Information Technology summit in Geneva and how IT can improve people's daily lives
President Hosni Mubarak is in Geneva today heading a high level delegation which will represent Egypt in the first World Summit on Information Society (WSIS). The delegation includes Minister of Communications and Information Technology and a large Egyptian delegation of Communication Information Technology (CIT) experts and professionals. Minister Nazif spoke to Al- Ahram Weekly on the importance of the summit and how far Egypt's CIT sector has come in the almost four years since the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology was created.
What is the importance of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS)?
The WSIS is the first such gathering where the heads of governments of all nations are meeting together to discuss an issue that has not been discussed at that level before -- namely, using communication and information technology for the benefit of the world society. The meeting in Geneva is the first of two; another summit is scheduled to take place in Tunis in 2005. This first meeting will identify the issues and define some mechanisms with which those issues can be addressed. But I think we will not come up with real solutions to the challenges before 2005.
What are the main issues under discussion during the summit?
One of the main issues is the digital divide. Information technology [IT] has leveraged the development of some nations while other nations have not developed in the same manner. The digital divide is serious because developing nations are at a disadvantage when the more developed nations can use telecommunications and information technology tools to advance faster; developing nations cannot advance at the same pace. This means the gap will continue to increase. This can be mapped in any sector. And this is an issue that exists not only between developing and developed nations, but even within the developed world.
Another important issue is how to maintain cultural diversity. The summit will attempt to address the question of how to preserve our identity in a merging world. Modern technologies are blending cultures in such a way that the cultural identity of individual countries are in danger of dissolving. Globalisation not only relates to economics or politics, but is also about information flow. There is also the issue of to how to deal with the Internet, who owns this network and controls it, and whether it should be controlled at all.
What is Egypt's role in the conference?
Egypt has played a pivotal role in the preparatory phase for the summit and we will also have the same role within the summit itself. We worked regionally with our neighbours in the Arab world and Africa and we had a regional summit last June to prepare for the WSIS.
We worked through the Council of Arab Ministers for Telecommunications and Information Technology under the Arab League. Out of the June conference came the Cairo Declaration, which unifies the views of Arab countries as far as the issues that will be discussed at the WSIS.
This declaration has been discussed between ourselves and it was used in the preparatory meetings for the summit. We have advanced many of our ideas so that they can be adopted during the summit.
What position is Egypt bringing forward to the conference?
Egypt has come a long way in building its own information society and it will showcase that experience at the summit. Egypt has witnessed a surge in growth within the CIT sector since 1999, when the president came up with a national plan for technology development in Egypt.
During the summit, the Egyptian information society initiative, which is a mature form of our national CIT plan that was devised in 1999, will be introduced.
Now in 2003 we feel that we needed to shift gear and have a new perspective on the future in terms of what we want for Egypt in the CIT sector.
What does the initiative entail?
The Egyptian information society initiative is a vision for Egypt in the future, using information technology to help economic and social development.
The initiative addresses seven main areas. One of these relates to base infrastructure development, which entails allowing citizens access to all manner of technology, not just the telephone network, but also the data and the Internet network across the country.
Second, the initiative focusses on e- learning: the use of information technology in education. We want to make sure that those technologies are being used so that we can effectively develop our educational system.
The third component is related to e- government. We want to solve many of our bureaucratic problems, especially services provided to citizens and to investors, so that the relationship between the government and other entities becomes smoother. This will also make the information flow within the government more efficient, more accurate and more timely, and so that our decision- making process and planning can be better.
The fourth component is related to the use of IT in e-business. In this case, we have to think about economic entities in all sectors, to see if they are using IT to compete in the world. The initiative encourages all kinds of enterprises to adopt and use IT.
Very much related to that is the fifth component, which addresses an environment that makes transactions on the Internet possible. This includes the E-Signature Law which will enable businesses to complete their transactions electronically. We are hoping to pass it through parliament this year. This law will provide authenticity to the transactions that take place electronically. Within the fifth component of the initiative also falls the establishment of an e-payment system. The initiative stresses that the banking system must adopt improved CIT technology. Our banks need to be at the forefront in terms of CIT usage. We are still struggling to regulate the use of cheques, while not only credit cards, but e-money, is being used worldwide.
Another component of the initiative is related to health services. Using information technology to help provide better health services to people is an important part of any information society. One of the main projects within this area is the establishment of a health database for the population. Through the usage of tele-medicine, health services can be provided remotely on the Internet to areas which do not have the same quality of service as the cities. This technology can also be used to train doctors.
Culture is another component of the initiative. Egypt has a huge archeological and cultural heritage. We need to preserve this culture, register and disseminate it electronically. This is a huge task because of the size of our heritage.
And finally, the initiative concludes with an important component related to our CIT industry. We have a goal to make this sector one of our main economic powers by being able to export CIT products, including software, and services such as telecom services, consulting and support services.
What is Egypt's potential in this area?
Egypt is very much ready for this kind of industry mainly because we have a large human capital: young talented Egyptians graduating from universities that can work in this area. Historically, we have been a source of know-how and knowledge, especially in Arabic, and we can use this to our advantage in many ways. We have a strong domestic market, with 70 million people. We are the centre of the Middle East and we are the northern gateway to Africa. Our goal is to attract more investments and partnerships with multinational companies to use Egypt as a spring board to the markets around us as well.
What is the size of Egypt's CIT exports and what products have the most chance to succeed on international markets?
Currently we export about $150 million a year, up from $50 million three years ago.
The service side is more important than the product side. We are witnessing an export of expertise for support and services to all the countries around us. Egyptian engineers are installing mobile networks in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Algeria. This is a very strong export component because the value added is very high. We are exporting the expertise that has been built within the country by multinational companies to the rest of the region, and in some cases to Eastern Europe.
A new area that we are developing is the call centre business. We have a large call centre that has been inaugurated in the new Smart Village technology park outside Cairo. This area has potential and could be worth $200-300 million a year in five years' time.
How can Egypt compare to the competition?
We need to make sure that we can market our resources properly. We need to increase our presence internationally. We did so at the Geneva World Telecom exhibition in October, where Egypt had a very strong presence as an exhibitor, not just a spectator.
Telecom Egypt [TE] was interested in buying a stake in Vodafone Egypt. Is that an alternative to setting up a third mobile network?
Telecom's decision to buy into an existing mobile company or to build their own network will depend on the economic feasibility of the different alternatives. TE is now looking into those alternatives.
We are expecting them to reach a decision soon, but they have not taken a final decision on which alternative they will choose.
TE has announced that it will be issuing bonds. What is the significance of such a move and what will the revenues of the bond issue be used for?
The bond issue and the buying into Vodafone are all new mechanisms that are healthy to use. Its important for TE to think like a corporation. And its doing so, to maximise the benefit for its shareholders -- which is the government as is the case today -- and also for the community at large.
The bond issue is more important than the mobile issue. For the first time we are seeing a corporation of the size of TE looking at alternative means of financing its expansion, growth and investments. This bond issue will provide the business community in Egypt with alternatives for financing that we have not seen in a while. It will also help enlarge the size of our bond market. The revenues of the bond issue will not be used for the mobile network, but for company expansions. TE's annual investment in fixed lines is LE3 billion.
Hasn't the situation on the international market improved enough to allow for the possible sale of a stake in Telecom Egypt?
Things have improved slightly this year. In just the past few months we have seen a sort of a bottoming up of the international situation, which we will look at closely. And we are constantly looking at opportunities to privatise part of the company, but we will not do it unless it is to our benefit.
How far has Internet penetration improved in Egypt?
Today we have almost one million households logging onto the net, which translates into around 2.5 million users. Four years ago there were only 300,000. This has been possible because of two important programmes that the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) has initiated in the past two years. The first programme is that of the free Internet. As a result, we have seen a surge in the number of Internet users across the country. That surge can also be seen in the bandwidth. Four years ago we were using a bandwidth of about 20 megabytes to talk to the rest of the world. Today, we are using a bandwidth of 1,000 megabytes. That is 50 times more traffic between us and the rest of the world on the Internet.
What has helped improve Internet penetration is a second project launched by MCIT: PC for everyone. This allows people to acquire PCs using their phone line as a collateral with no down payment, and paying a monthly installment. This helped a lot of families acquire new PCs. About 50,000 PCs have been bought this way.
Post offices throughout the country have been receiving facelifts. Is this an indication of pending privatisation or corporatisation of the Postal Authority (PA)? Corporatisation, yes, but there is no intention for now to look at privatisation. But this does not mean that we will not invite the private sector to partner with the Authority on some of the services and projects, such as parcel delivery, express mail, electronic data interchange and many of the new services which are not traditional postal services in Egypt.
An important component in the PA is the post office savings account. PA has 10 million accounts, and so can be considered the largest bank in Egypt. It has about 3,000 branches across the country. No bank has this number of branches. The existing financial infrastructure will allow us to develop many new services. The postal authority today is installing Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs), and it is networking and wiring all of its offices. It will be able to provide new services, such as electronic money transfers, to customers.

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