The Internet in Laos: A Rough Guide
by Madanmohan Rao (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Vientiane, Laos; September 15, 2000
[Note: This informal study was conducted by the writer during the week September 11-16, 2000, in Vientiane, Laos]
Tucked away in southeast Asia between Vietnam, China, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, the 5-million people nation of Laos has only recently opened its gates to the Internet. Caught often in the crossroads of Big Power conflicts, this landlocked communist nation now faces a new set of challenges in the world of the globalised Internet - but also offers a lot of potential.
This informal report hopes to jumpstart discussion on how the Internet may be harnessed by the people of this country, what role there is for policymakers and entrepreneurs, and what lessons may be shared with other similar parts of the world. The framework used will be based on the author's list of parameters for comparative Internet diffusion, the Eight Cs of the Internet economy: connectivity, content, community, commerce, capacity, culture, cooperation and capital.
Since launch less than a year ago, the two ISPs LaoTel (government telecom) and GlobeNet (private ISP) have together accounted for a few thousand users, almost exclusively in the capital Vientiane. About a dozen cybercafes and hotels in the city offer Internet access at reasonable speeds for about US$2 an hour (amazingly cheap for tourists, horribly expensive for locals). Most cybercafes close by around 11 pm. Access outside the city, at universities, by government agencies and by local companies is very low. PCs are still very expensive for locals, hence shared devices and shared access lines (community centres, cybercafes, kiosks) will be the key to opening up the Net here.
A few dozen Lao sites exist (eg. VisitLaos.com, MuongLao.com), in English and Lao, but much more local content (and eventually local directories) will be needed. English proficiency is unfortunately quite low, and there are many languages spoken other than the official national language Lao. Areas where content focus is needed include tourism (Laos is a great tourist destination), news, healthcare/healthservices, education, government services, and UXO (tracking the distribution of American unexploded ordinances dropped all over the countryside during the ugly Vietnam War).
There are very few email/Webchat discussion groups focusing on Laos. As for offline fora, there desperately needs to be a local Internet Users Group or Infotech Users Association to meet regularly (say, monthly) and discuss common issues, host talks (with local speakers and visitors from other Asian countries), lobby for a stronger IT industry, etc. - this is something well suited for sponsorship by multilateral agencies like the UNDP and ITU (both have a presence here).
This could take off very well for the tourism industry; many hotels have email ids, but none are booking rooms in realtime using credit cards. Promotion of handicrafts and gems could be another promising area, as well as B2B.
Very few training institutes offer courses on Internet/network-related topics. Almost no university/college has such courses, hence there will be a significant need for training and education to increase local capacity (skills, knowledge base). But with a sufficiently large base of domestic infoworkers, Laos too could become a destination for outsourcing Web development work from other parts of the world, as in the case of the Philippines. And once local success stories are documented and discussed in the media, more enthusiasm and domestic ventures could be spawned.
The government is not very proactive on the Internet front, but has at least introduced local POPs for Internet access. Political control of content is an issue; the international Internet link is via SingNet, whose filtering mechanisms for objectionable content in Singapore are thus conveniently extended to Lao users as well.
There is not much of a strong drive to get online, largely due to poor infrastructure and lack of awareness of Net impacts. There is very little coverage of IT or the Net in the local media as well, so the Internet buzz does not permeate the professional/youth community.
This is the biggest challenge of all - getting the private, academic, government, NGO, and multilateral agency sectors to talk to one another. So much can be done, for instance, if cybercafés could be used after-hours and on Sundays by students who don't have access on campuses. Cybercafés could also become local Web design/solutions hubs for other organisations in the country. An Internet Users Association (see above) or Internet Society Chapter is needed to bring all the concerned parties together under one umbrella, meet regularly, and bring about grass-roots calls for action. Cooperation could also work well with other Asian countries like India, who have good ties with Laos.
A strong start-up culture is needed to get more entrepreneurs into the Internet economy. Some of the Lao diaspora and foreign-returned students/businessmen can play a big role in providing capital for jump-starting Internet ventures here (as in the case of India); an incubation role can also be explored by academic institutes and multilateral agencies. But many Lao expats do not have a friendly disposition towards the government - though things can change on this front, as demonstrated across the border by Vietnam.
The writer is an Internet consultant and columnist based in Bangalore, India (see more writings at www.inomy.com).
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