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Cuba MapInternet Fever Reaches the Top of the World

Madanmohan Rao reports from the InfoTech Summit 2001 in Kathmandu

Sandwiched between the software powerhouse of India and the hardware dynamo of China, the mountain kingdom of Nepal also seems to be catching Internet fever.

More than 300 conference delegates, 75 exhibiting companies, and 60,000 trade show attendees from 20 countries gathered in Kathmandu for the seventh annual InfoTech Summit, featuring a five-day trade show and a two-day conference (www.ITconference.org.np).

"Though Nepal has missed the industrial revolution, it can catch the IT [information technology (IT)] bus and transform its knowledge into wealth and social good," said science and technology minister Surendra Prasad Chaudhary; the country recently passed an IT policy in this regard.

Within just five years of introduction of the Net to this Himalayan country, Nepalese have turned "Web crazy," writes Binaj Gurubacharya in the Kathmandu Post, the leading English-language daily whose news content featured prominently in the first major Web site published from Nepal in 1995: South-Asia.com.

Today thousands of sites on Nepal offer news, travel, and special interest information, ranging from NepalNews.com and AahaNepal.com to NepalOnline.net and Travel-Nepal.com.

Teens flock to sites like Boyfriend.com.np and Girlfriend.com.np, and the Marco Polo Hotel in Kathmandu even calls its Net-connected business center the Software Library.

On a more serious note, a team of Harvard University researchers is using the Web as a conflict resolution platform to bring together a diverse group of individuals who may never meet face-to-face: members of the Maoist guerrilla faction and the Nepalese police force, who are engaged in a conflict that has claimed more than 2,000 lives in the past four years.

The IT Summit was hosted by the Computer Association of Nepal (CAN [www.can.org.np]), whose ambitious goal is to put Nepal on the global IT map within five years. Formed seven years ago, CAN today has over 100 institutional members.

Despite a traditional fixation with agriculture and tourism, momentum in the Internet sector is picking up. This year's CAN InfoTech Summit, which prominently features the Internet on the conference agenda, was inaugurated by the crown prince and was held at the expansive Birendra International Convention Center instead of on a hotel floor as in previous years.

By the end of the year, Nepal is estimated to have 100,000 Internet users spread over 10 cities and towns. There are about a dozen Internet service providers (ISPs) led by Mercantile Communication and WorldLink; others include Capital Online, Everest Net, Himalayan Online, and Nepal Telecom.

ISP Mercantile has also launched an online education site called CyberLearningNepal.com, and WorldLink has launched an initiative called Campaign Saraswati to get more than 150 Nepalese schools online (www.nepalschools.org).

"The growth of CAN over the years is testimony to the potential of IT in Nepal," said keynote speaker Kenneth Keniston, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "However, IT can also spawn a globally connected, Westernized digital elite, and one must guard against creating new divides within and between countries," he urged.

While it may be unrealistic to expect new technologies like the Internet to eradicate the deeper problems of poverty and injustice in a society like Nepal, there is a lot of potential emerging in this area in neighboring countries like India, observed Keniston, who recently spent six months researching and teaching in India and now directs MIT's India Project.

Keniston pointed to the low-cost Simputer device project in Bangalore, the CorDECT wireless-local-loop solution of IIT Madras, and the IndLinux project in India as notable examples of increasing Internet diffusion in developing countries. Such technologies can even be extended to areas of a country where there is low literacy by using a literate Net operator to interface with the local populace, he said.

SAARC secretary-general Nihal Rodrigo highlighted other instances of IT diffusion in South Asia, such as computer-aided design in Bhutan, e-government in the Maldives, software - hatcheries in Pakistan, and flood detection projects in Bangladesh.

Still, the penetration of the Internet amounts to less than 1 percent of the population in each South Asian country, said Bhes Raj Kamel of Nepal Telecom Corporation.

The digital divide is perhaps the most acute in a landlocked country like Nepal, where 90 percent of the population base of 25 million live in rugged mountainous regions that account for over 77 percent of the surface area.

The 58 municipalities of Nepal have an aggregate teledensity of eight phone lines per thousand people, according to Suresh Negmi, president of the IT Professional Forum. Extending the Net to rural areas will be a challenge when more than 50 percent of existing telephone service demand is as yet unmet.

E-government in Nepal is still at the basic office computerization stage, and many of the government's past ambitious national plans have yet to be implemented in full, Negmi said.

E-mail was first introduced to Nepal in 1993, with full Web access launched in 1994. International Internet bandwidth is about 10 Mbps, but domestic peering between ISPs has yet to happen. There are also about 50 cybercafés in Kathmandu and 20 in Pokhara, offering Internet access at about a dollar an hour.

Nepal has five service providers for radio paging, 80 for cable TV, and one for cell phones. Forty-two percent of the population has TV access, and 90 percent has radio access. IT education is being offered by four universities, 25 colleges, and 1,000 training institutes, according to figures provided by CAN.

Activities currently popular among IT companies in Nepal include GIS mapping, medical transcription, Web design, and back-end software. Figures touted optimistically in the business press in Nepal include World Bank predictions of exports of IT products from the country worth $50 billion in the coming 20 years.

"We have tied up with U.S. company Heartland for medical transcription; we have over 500 employees today," said Juddha Gurong, CEO of Himalayan Infotech Services (www.hits.wlink.com.np). "Much of the IT action in Nepal is centered in Kathmandu; more promotion and development needs to happen in other cities as well," according to Gurong.

GeoSpatial Systems (www.geospatial-sysems.com), a joint venture between Japanese and Nepalese companies, is active in the GIS area and offers services in map digitization, addition of spatial attributes, and Web enabling of maps for geographic applications like yellow pages services.

"We have over 200 people working in three shifts; we are now adding almost 30 new people a month," said CEO Binod Pal. GIS tools play an important role in government activities like urban/rural planning, mining, logistics, and health services.

Useful online resources about Nepal include NepalNet (www.panasia.org.sg/nepalnet), NepalSearch.com, eNepal.com, HimalMag.com, and NepalYellowPage.net. Free Web-based e-mail services are offered by companies like ITnepal.com and ITNTI.com.

The Nepal Industrial Development Corporation has launched an online directory and resource called SMEcenter.com to promote smaller Nepalese companies on the Net.

On December 13, 2000, the government of Nepal released a national IT policy supporting electronic commerce, IT education, and e-government and setting a target of 10 billion Nepalese rupees in IT exports in five years (1 Indian rupee = 1.6 Nepalese rupees). The policy is being regarded as a step in the right direction, but it still falls short on critical areas like e-commerce legislation. The policy reduces import duties on hardware and software to a mere 1 percent—but this applies only to companies in the IT sector and not to residential users. And e-commerce sites in Nepal still cannot accept payment from abroad in U.S. dollars.

"We are still a cash-based society, and we don't even accept checks, let alone credit cards," joked Manohar Bhattarai, an adviser in rural-urban partnerships.

Indian IT and Internet companies active in Nepal include NIIT, Aptech, SSI, TCS, Pentasoft, Nucleus Software, Satyam Infoway, and Contests2Win. Many more are joining the fray, and a growing number of Nepalese students are also turning to colleges in India for IT and engineering degrees.

"We host over 3,000 Indian domains and now over 50 Nepalese domains," said Vikas Garg of Delhi-based Web hosting company Jingle Infotech.

Bangalore-based SPG Infotech has found a partner in Kathmandu for its Linux services. "We are expanding in South Asian countries like Nepal and identifying implementation partners for RedHat Linux solutions," said Director A. Chandrasekar of SPG. The company runs a Linux site called LinuxSmartWorld.com.

Leaving aside sporadic unfortunate outbursts of anti-Indian sentiment, Indian IT companies will find a welcome reception in Nepal, according to CAN secretary-general Rajib Subba, who himself studied engineering in Karnataka.

Despite much "e-optimism" voiced at the conference, key challenges for creating a knowledge industry base in Nepal will be in reversing the brain drain, tapping the Nepalese diaspora, creating better conditions for Netpreneurs, nurturing a cadre of professional technology managers, improving IT education at the consumer and corporate levels, and attracting venture capital.

On a recent visit to his home country, Nepalese expat Pradeep Tulachan, member of the iPlanet group at the AOL/Netscape/Sun consortium in Silicon Valley, also emphasized the need for quality work to be done in Nepal in order to attract foreign IT investment.

"Today the biggest challenge is not how to stop Nepalese IT professionals from going abroad, but how to bring back those who have been working abroad," wrote Unlimited Numedia CEO Allen Tuladhar, who himself returned to Nepal from the United States in 1992.

Some Nepalese expats are already involved in Web ventures like Yomari.net and ITNTI.com, but many more need to join the fray.

Just as India has leveraged its nonresident Indians, so too must Nepal harness its nonresident Nepalese, said Madan Lamsal in a recent issue of Business Age magazine; the government must also go beyond "showcase policies" and actually engage in activism on the lines of Singapore or Andhra Pradesh.

Science and Technology minister Surendra Prasad Chaudhary is an active promoter of the Net in Nepal, but the Science and Technology Ministry must be joined by the other ministries as well.

For its part, CAN is jointly lobbying for a higher profile for the IT sector and is organizing promotional events not just in the capital city but also in Biratnagar, Birgunj, Pokara and Bhairahawa.

CAN held the first-ever IT rally in Kathmandu this past December and has launched an IT program—Suchana Prabidhi Dot Com—on community FM station Radio Sagarmatha.

"Our radio program, like that of the Kothmale Internet Community Radio project in Sri Lanka , can open up the world of the Internet to our radio listeners," said program producer Gaurab Upadhaya. The program is being syndicated to other radio stations as well.

A radio set in Nepal (priced at Rs 60) is a thousand times cheaper than a PC (Rs 60,000), Upadhaya observed.

Rameshananda Vaidya, member of Nepal's National Planning Commission, said that harsh economic necessity will drive the country to IT, but technologies like the Internet must be developed in parallel with other, older media forms like wall newspapers and should be contextualized within the key economic and social spheres of Nepal.

Concern over the digital divide is also growing within various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Nepal, such as the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (www.icimod.org.np).

Basic literacy in Nepal is about 55 percent, and English literacy hovers at about 2 percent. Factors constraining lack of online content in Nepalese and other local languages like Newari include a lack of standardization of fonts.

"Despite such challenges, the Internet can help sectors like tourism, agriculture, and handicrafts. It can help in poverty alleviation by creating jobs via IT-enabled services and can help the workforce in other sectors become more competitive and globally connected," said Basant Shreshta, information resource head at ICIMOD.

Established in 1983 to focus on sustainable development, ICIMOD's members in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region—the world's highest and most populous mountain region—include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan.

ICIMOD has been active in institutional capacity building among NGOs and educational organizations via recent workshops on Web publishing held in Himachal Pradesh, Shillong, and Tibet.

Headquartered in Kathmandu, ICIMOD also hosted the first South Asian Internet Summit in Dhaka in 1999, helped train Bhutan's first ISP—DrukNet—and held Internet workshops in five Central Asian republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tadjikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Internetworking giant Cisco Systems is increasing the profile of its networking academies in the region, according to Singapore-based training program manager Eli Tagakaki. Cisco has teamed up with UNDP for local capacity building in Asia and also for the NetAid.org site to raise funds aimed at reducing the digital divide.

In sum, CAN seems to have generated sufficient enthusiasm for the Net in Nepal, and though putting the country on the global IT map in five years will be an uphill task, it is a fittingly Himalayan vision.

The writer can be reached at madanr@microland.net.

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