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The Internet in Laos: A Rough Guide

By Madanmohan Rao madanr@planetasia.com

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 globalized Internet, but also offers a lot of potential.

This article hopes to jump-start 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 is 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.

Connectivity

Since their launch less than a year ago, the two Internet service providers (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 $2 an hour--amazingly cheap for tourists, horribly expensive for locals. Most cybercafes close by about 11 p.m. Access outside the city, at universities, by government agencies, and by local companies is very low. PCs are still very expensive for locals, and hence shared devices and shared access lines (community centers, cybercafes, kiosks) will be the key to opening up the Net here.

Content

A few dozen Lao sites exist--such as VisitLaos.com and 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, health care/ health services, education, government services, and UXO (tracking the distribution of American unexploded ordinances dropped all over the countryside during the Vietnam war).

Community

There are very few e-mail/Web chat discussion groups focusing on Laos. As for offline forums, 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 information technology industry, and so on. This is something well suited for sponsorship by multilateral agencies like the United Nations Development Program and the International Telecommunications Union, both of which have a presence here.

Commerce

This could take off very well for the tourism industry; many hotels have e-mail IDs, but none are booking rooms in real time via credit cards. Promotion of handicrafts and gems could be another promising area, as could business-to-business commerce.

Capacity

Very few training institutes offer courses on Internet-network-related topics. Almost no university/college has such courses, so 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.

Culture

The government is not very proactive on the Internet front, but has at least introduced local points of presence 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 information technology or the Net in the local media as well, so the "Internet buzz" does not permeate the professional/youth community.

Cooperation

This is the biggest challenge of all: getting the private, academic, government, nongovernmental organization, and multilateral agency sectors to talk to one another. So much can be done, for instance, if cybercafes could be used after hours and on Sundays by students who don't have access on campuses. Cybercafes could also become local Web design/solutions hubs for other organizations in the country. An Internet Users Association (as mentioned earlier) or Internet Society chapter is needed to bring all of the concerned parties together under one umbrella to meet regularly and to bring about grassroots calls for action. Cooperation could also work well with other Asian countries like India, which have good ties with Laos.

Capital

A strong start-up culture is needed to get more entrepreneurs into the Internet economy. Some of the Lao diaspora and foreign-returned students/businesspeople 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 toward the government, though things can change on this front, as demonstrated across the border by Vietnam.

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