Arab Region Internet & Telecom Summit
Muscat (Oman), 28-30 May 2001
 

  Conclusions 

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CONCLUSIONS

The Arab Region Internet and Telecom Summit, organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and hosted by the Oman Telecommunications Company (OmanTel), took place in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman from 28 – 30 May 2001. There were 85 participants from ten countries. Mohammed Nasser Al-Harthy, Acting Director General, Coordination and International Services of OmanTel and Khalil Aburizik from the ITU Regional Office in Cairo made introductory remarks. The summit programme and documents are available at: www.itu.int/arabinternet2001.

The following are the main conclusions:

1)   Internet penetration of 2.2 per cent  in the Arab region is ranked low, at less than half the world average of 5.2 per cent and increased effort is needed to catch up.

2)   There is a shortage of Arabic language content and Internet applications relevant to the region’s existing and potential users. Development of relevant content should be one of the region’s top priorities.

3)   The cost of Internet access and usage charges plus the associated investment in home PCs are prohibitive relative to average salary levels prevailing in the region and need to be reduced to encourage Internet services usage.

4)   Increased public access (e.g., Multi-Purpose Community Telecenters) is an important means for widening the Internet user base.

5)   Operators need scalable solutions with sufficient real-time bandwidth to cost effectively migrate from circuit-switched to packet-switched networks and to evolve from pure transporters of information to providers of revenue generating, value-added services in line with their customers’ needs.

6)   There is a shortage of reliable, up-to-date Internet market information on the region that in turn limits analysis of Internet development.

7)   Despite their significant role in ICT, women Internet users are under-represented in the region and their potential (e.g., for tele-working from home) needs to be further developed.

8)   With mobile telephone users surpassing fixed telephone users, mobile subscribers outnumbering Internet subscribers by ten to one and more mobile handsets than PCs, mobile Internet access and associated services such as messaging can be  key Internet drivers in the Arab region.

9)   Governments need to take an active role as Internet facilitators in the region through the establishment of national ICT plans including local services industry development, training, communications infrastructure development and the promotion/pioneering of ICT applications and legislation through model laws, e-government, e-procurement etc.

Penetration

With an Internet penetration of 2.2 per cent, the Arab region ranks low compared to other regions in the world and it has less than half of the world average of 5.2 per cent. These figures suggest that there is considerable room for improvement. Even though Internet penetration in the region is relatively low, it is growing rapidly. The number of users has been doubling in the last few years and at the end of 2000 the Arab Internet market was estimated to have over two million users. However, because of the late introduction of the Internet to the region, good growth is not enough and increased efforts are needed to catch up.

Content

A lack of Arabic content and relevant applications limits expansion of the Internet in the region. In Lebanon, for example, none of the main ISP portals provide content in Arabic, which limits Internet access to those who speak English or French. It was also noted that most Arabs online use chat or email and there is a shortage of content, such as educational applications. Therefore, providing relevant content in the Arab language should be one of the region’s top priorities. The ITU has announced its intention to expand its       e-learning activities and initiatives within the Arab Region but support from within the region is needed to adapt the existing course materials to specific needs and to translate it into Arabic.

The discussion showed an overall agreement that although Arabic needs to be promoted, other second languages, especially English, are important for the development of the Internet. Enhanced training in English would allow more Arabs to make use of already available content. It is equally important to increase the number of Arab speaking software developers who understand English and then develop programs in their own language.

Language must be adapted to content. Whereas e-government applications should be developed in Arabic, tourism web sites might be more relevant in English and other languages.

Some government officials in the region still tend to be protective of information and reluctant to make it publicly available online, fearing that they may lose influence or that the information could be false or misleading. There was a consensus that governments not only need to promote the use of the Internet but also need to get online themselves and provide useful applications for their citizens, such as e-government and e-procurement.

Costs

Although Internet access prices in the region have been dropping, they still constitute a major barrier to higher Internet penetration. It is important to note that telephone usage tariffs constitute a significant portion of overall Internet access charges in many countries. Several countries have recently reduced Internet access prices by introducing free ISP services or by lowering telephone usage charges when accessing the Internet. For example, in Jordan, telephone usage charges have been reduced for dial-up Internet access. In Lebanon some banks provide free Internet access to their customers, which has led other ISPs to dramatically lower their prices. The proven success of mobile pre-paid cards suggests that pre-paid access should be extended to Internet services. Another barrier is the relatively high cost of Personal Computers (PCs). In Oman, OmanTel is planning to facilitate the purchase of PCs via installment payments and thus allow more people to have home access.

Public Access

Public access is an important means for widening Internet access, especially where home access is limited. For example, a majority of Internet users in Morocco access the Internet from cybercafés. In Jordan, it is often cheaper to use a cybercafé than to access the Internet from home. There are a number of initiatives and ideas to enhance public access. In Yemen telephone call centers have been very successful and could be expanded to also provide Internet access. In the UAE, the number of Internet Surfing Centers (ISCs) has increased since licensing was liberalized and the ISCs are now charged by the number of PCs they have rather than a flat rate. The importance of a community-based approach to public access was emphasized. The Egyptian experience with Multipurpose Community Telecenters (MCTs) was highlighted. The MCTs provide technical and technological support to users and an enabling environment for the creation of local information content.

Several participants, however, noted that cybercafés might actually discourage Internet use because of poor quality, such as slow speed. Regulators should make more of an effort to monitor Internet quality of service.

Technology

Telecom operators face the challenge of transitioning from circuit-switched to packet-switched networks and to evolve from pure transporters of information to providers of revenue-generating, value-added services to meet their customers’ needs. Growing Internet traffic is placing a burden on the existing network and adding to its management complexity. The timing of migration to IP-based networks for developing countries is an important question. The high cost of investment and initial low revenue stream were cited as major concerns. Another issue is the risk of duplicate infrastructure and idle capacity. Solutions proposed included hybrid networks that off-load Internet dial-up traffic from the Public Switched Telephone Network at key points. Scalable solutions may also help minimize excess capacity. Operators need to identify their clients’ needs and market new services effectively. While the core network is rarely a bottleneck when devices with high broadband capacity and real-time, sensitive protocols are available, the problem is with the access network, due to the prevalence of dial-up at slow speed. Various broadband access solutions such as ADSL, cable modem and fixed wireless were mentioned.

Data Collection

There is a shortage of reliable, up-to-date Internet market information on the region. Existing data such as that collected by the ITU is annual but more frequent statistics (e.g., monthly or quarterly) are needed, given that the Internet market changes so rapidly. It was also mentioned that it is difficult to obtain consistent figures, with different organizations (e.g., regulator, operator, ISP) within a country providing different data. ISPs are sometimes reluctant to provide information because of commercial concerns. Another problem is that while the number of Internet subscribers is a fairly comparable figure, there appears to be little consistency about what multiplier to use to estimate the number of users. Few market research organizations or national statistical agencies conduct surveys on Internet use in the region. As a result there is a shortage of methodologically sound data on the number of users, their place of access, their composition, time spent on the Internet, web sites visited, etc. This limits analysis of Internet development in the region.

It was suggested that the ITU, along with other partners such as ESCWA, coordinate data collection for the region. This would include measures to expand the number of Internet indicators collected and making them available more frequently. One idea would be to bring national statistical agencies and telecom regulators together to collect Internet indicators.

Gender

Women Internet users are underrepresented in the Arab region. One reason is that the region has a relatively large discrepancy in literacy between males and females. If the Internet is to expand, this major group of potential users needs to be brought online. Despite the statistics—which some participants challenged as misleading—there are examples where women are significantly involved in ICT. There are, for example, more women than men in the Egyptian software industry. The potential of tele-working for utilizing the untapped skills of women at home is immense (e.g., translation, etc.).

Mobile Internet

Mobile telephony is growing rapidly in the region. The number of mobile telephone users in the Arab region will surpass fixed telephone subscribers in the next few years. Mobile subscribers already outnumber Internet subscribers by ten to one and there are more mobile handsets than PCs. Bringing these mobile users online through mobile Internet access could significantly increase the number of Internet users in the region. SMS is a good precursor for mobile Internet use but in some countries the high cost of sending SMS messages is limiting its use. As in other parts of the world, awareness continues to be a problem and some users are not aware that they have a WAP-enabled handset and the possibilities it offers. Concerning the future of mobile technologies, some worry that 4G mobile may replace 3G even before the latter launches. The cost of installing a 3G network was also cited as a concern. 

Policy

There are a number of policy, regulatory and related cultural barriers that inhibit the use of the Internet in the region. It was mentioned that the region tends to be reactive rather than proactive. In the area of e-commerce, for instance, it was only when developed countries started talking about copyright protection that the region began to react to it. Arab Internet users are young, on average seven years younger than users in other developing countries, and therefore have little influence on Internet policy. Top-level support is crucial for promoting Internet initiatives and the role of the government is to act as a facilitator. For example, the e-Dinar electronic money project in Tunisia has had top-level support from the President. Governmental projects in Egypt have been significant for connecting different sectors of the economy to the Internet. Ministries of Communications by themselves are often not strong enough to exert the needed influence on Internet policy, which tends to require top-level governmental support and a national and coherent plan for ICT development. For example, Egypt was able to obtain significant concessions from an IT company once the government became involved. The importance of local champions was also mentioned. An example of this is doctors promoting Internet health applications.

Concern about access to sensitive content has in some countries restricted the provision of international Internet connectivity to one provider. This has had a detrimental affect on pricing and quality because of a lack of competition. There are other solutions to restrict access to sensitive sites, such as industry self-regulation, family-friendly Internet access plans and filtering software. Although some 80 per cent of the world market allows IP telephony, many countries in the Arab region restrict the availability of VoIP and other new services because of concerns about the impact that these services may have on the incumbent service provider. These restrictions essentially hinder the development of cheaper and often more sophisticated applications.  

 

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