Sherif R. HASHEM <email@example.com>
Cabinet Information and Decision Support Center
In the past decade, the Internet has caused an information revolution around the world. However, with all the promise of a global information society, a significant majority of the world's population can be easily left out of this information revolution. Citizens in many developing countries have limited access to information technology, even in its simplest and most basic forms such as telephony, fax machines, and personal computers. Internet access is (relatively) expensive in many places. In addition, there is a tremendous need for the technical expertise required to use information technology tools in various application areas such as e-commerce, telemedicine, and distance education. Technology access community centers (TACCs) offer a unique delivery mechanism that can empower local communities in developing countries. A TACC is usually established in a central location in the community and offers a variety of services including telephony, fax machines, copiers, personal computers, software libraries, and (of course) Internet access. The TACC provides seminars, workshops, roadshows, specialized training, and technical and technological expertise for professionals as well as for the general public. The mission of the TACC is basically community empowerment and local capacity-building by optimizing the use of information technology tools and techniques. In this paper, we discuss the evolution of Internet services, the start-up of TACCs in Egypt, and their impact on local communities and socioeconomic development. We present and analyze the experiences of establishing information and technology centers in major cities and industrial communities as well as villages.
In the 1990s, the Internet sparked an information revolution around the world. Currently, tens of millions of Internet users are relying on it for information interchange on a daily basis. Millions of Web sites have been created worldwide to reflect different cultures, satisfy different needs, and delight different tastes. We are living an era where information is being placed at the fingertips of global citizens, empowering and motivating them wherever they are. While this bright picture may be the case in developed countries, where computer penetration and Internet access are above 20%, citizens of developing countries have limited access to information and communication technologies (ICTs), even in its simplest and most basic forms like telephony, fax machines, and personal computers. Internet access is (relatively) very expensive in many places. In addition, there is a tremendous shortage of the technical skills and expertise required to use information technology tools in various application areas including education, commerce, healthcare, and distance education.
We here investigate potential roles of technology access community centers (TACCs) in serving the ICT needs of local communities, especially in a developing country like Egypt. The paper starts with a brief summary of the ICT status quo in Egypt, then highlights issues and challenges relating to use of ICT by the general public, and finally investigates the role of the TACCs in empowering local communities, especially in rural areas.
Given its limited resources, Egypt faces tremendous challenges to upgrade and expand its information and communication infrastructure, as in many developing countries, in order to catch up with the rest of the developed world.
At present, there are more than 5 million telephone lines, which bring the teledensity to about 8 telephone lines for every 100 citizens. While Egypt is more fortunate than its neighboring African countries where teledensity is 1to2, the country still lags far behind developed countries, where teledensity is much higher (65 in the United States and 45 in Europe). The efforts toward the establishment of a digital backbone for data communication began to pick up momentum in the 1990s. Fiber connectivity was made available on SEMEWE-2 and thus the basic obstacles of the Infrastructure limitations have been overcome. In 1996, an ambitious project for the deployment of VSAT services for Internet connectivity was launched to provide rural areas with the necessary data communication infrastructure. This project complemented the terrestrial solutions and aided in reducing the gap in service between well-connected regions, such as Greater Cairo, and remote and rural areas in southern Egypt. More recently, in 1997, asymmetric communication was introduced to speed up data exchange by relying on hybrid connectivity solutions involving satellites and terrestrial links. Also, in 1998, the first Egyptian satellite, NileSat 101, was launched. NileSat 101 will provide space for supporting digital connectivity and data exchange in a number of application areas, including e-commerce and distance education.
On the other hand, since the mid-1980s, Egypt has started a nationwide computerization process of its public sector and governmental offices. This effort led to the establishment of more than 1,200 information and decision support centers (IDSCs). In 1985, the Information and Decision Support Center of the Cabinet of Ministers was established. Since then, the Cabinet IDSC has provided the leadership and the technical support to establish other IDSCs in all the ministries, the governorates (Egypt's administrative divisions), the major cities, and even in more than 400 villages. In addition, more than 35 training centers have been establish to provide training on information technology and decision support to government employees and recent university graduates, as a part of nationwide effort to leverage computer literacy and enhance the computer skills of the workforce. The primary target of the IDSCs has been to assist and support decision makers in the governmental sector and public administration. The IDSCs have engaged in several joint projects to establish national databases in key sectors, including public administration, education, legislation, healthcare, tourism, and the environment.
Internet services were first introduced in Egypt in October of 1993 through a gateway established by the Egyptian Universities Network (EUN) of the Supreme Council of Egyptian Universities. Since 1994, the Egyptian domain has been divided into three main subdomains. These are the academic subdomain, which is served by EUN, and the commercial subdomain and the governmental subdomain, which are served jointly through a partnership between the Egyptian Cabinet Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC) and the Regional Information Technology and Software Engineering Center (RITSEC) (http://www.ritsec.com.eg/). Egypt's Telecom, which exercises a monopoly on basic communication services in the country, has been focusing mainly on the provision of basic communication infrastructure. However, about two years ago, it became a partner in one of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
In an effort to empower the use of Internet services by the Egyptian community, IDSC jointly with RITSEC, provided free Internet access for Egyptian corporations, private and public sector companies, governmental entities, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and professionals. The strategy of offering free Internet access helped to establish a wide base for Internet use in Egypt (Hashem & Kamel, 1998). In 1996, the free Internet access policy was replaced by an open access policy, where Internet access provided to the commercial domain was privatized and more than 12 private ISPs started operation. Currently, there are about 50 ISPs in Egypt, covering 17 governorates out of a total of 26 governorates. The average cost of Internet dialup access is $20/month in Cairo (down from $100/month in 1996). Access cost is 2 to 3 times higher outside Greater Cairo. However, these access costs are still outside the reach of the general public, especially in rural areas and outside major cities.
During the first two years of the introduction of Internet services in Egypt, the free access strategy set forth by IDSC-RITSEC partnership boosted the rate of growth in Internet users. Many organizations, especially small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs), benefited from the services. Egyptian SMEs use the Internet for
In addition, professionals started using the Internet services in various sectors including trade, manufacturing, healthcare, tourism, education and scientific research, social services, and other key sectors. Early users specialized in
The development of the Egyptian market, coupled with the establishment of several private ISPs, has led to the rise of a broad spectrum of Internet services. More specifically, Internet users obtain information; follow worldwide news; buy stocks, books, magazines, computer software and hardware; and even do grocery shopping over the Net. The demands of corporate users are also becoming more and more sophisticated, with the continuous upsurge in the use of firewalls, intranets, extranets, secured Web servers, smart cards, and advanced software for performing various business-to-business financial transactions. Currently, the number of Internet users is estimated to be around 120,000 (i.e., about 1% of the total population, which is fairly small compared with 20%-40% in developed countries). The small number of Internet users can be attributed to the following factors:
Most of the Internet use is still very basic (i.e., limited to e-mail, chatting, or retrieving information from the Web). However, there is a growing interest in more advanced applications such as e-commerce, e-trade, distance education, and telemedicine.
Aside from the telecommunications and Internet access issues, there are valid concerns regarding the scarcity of the local information content and the regional information exchange. This can be attributed to:
These manifestations are in turn the result of past practices in Egypt and in many developing countries in the region, which include:
The development of useful local and regional information content requires mobilizing resources to face the above challenges, and to overcome obstacles like language and cultural barriers. Critical sectors where information content needs to be developed include commerce, trade, industry, small and medium-size enterprises, healthcare, education, tourism, culture, public services, environment, and agriculture.
Several reasons for the inadequate telecommunication infrastructure and lack of public access to the Internet include political, regulatory, financial, technical, social, and cultural reasons. Innovative solutions like the technology access community centers and telecenters, which are being established (worldwide) through cooperative efforts involving international organizations (United Nations Development Program, ITU, IDRC, UNCTAD, World Bank), can play vital roles in leveraging resources and providing wide access to information technologies and the Internet to the general public.
Technology access community centers (TACCs) offer a unique delivery mechanism that can empower local communities in developing countries. A TACC is usually established in a central location in the community, and offers a variety of information and communication services including telephony, fax machines, copiers, personal computers, software libraries, and (of course) Internet access. The TACC provides seminars, workshops, road shows, specialized training, and technical and technological expertise for professional as well as for the general public. The mission of the TACC is basically community empowerment and local capacity building by optimizing the use of ICT tools and techniques.
The key services of the TACCs can be summarized in the following:
Community involvement is key to the success of the TACCs. Starting from the planning phase, key community leaders or leading organizations need to be involved in drafting the policies and operational guidelines for the TACCs, and in planning major activities. Surveys of community needs, coupled with public awareness events and seminars, can be instrumental in assessing the community needs and requirements. They can help shape the TECC model, a model that has to be flexible and adjustable following the changes in community needs and priorities. We believe that there is no one "right model" for the TACCs, but their community focus is indeed a key factor necessary for their success.
Pilot TACC project
In 1998, a pilot project was initiated to establish three TACCs in the Governorate of Sharkeya (about 70 km northeast of Cairo). The project budget is $320K, excluding in-kind support. The project is funded by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) under a special program called Information Technology for Development. The Egyptian partners are the Governorate of Sharkeya, the Egyptian Cabinet IDSC, and the Investors Association of the 10th of Ramadan City. Later in 1999, the Chamber of Commerce of Sharkeya and the Trade Point Division of the Ministry of Trade and Supplies joined the project. The diversity of project partnership reflects the interest of the Egyptian government, private sector, and NGOs in the TACC concept.
The project is managed by the Regional Information Technology and Software Engineering Center (RITSEC), which has as its focus the promotion of ICT in Egypt and the Arab region. The tentative opening date for the three TACCs is mid-March 1999.
We believe that the unique (mixed) partnership in establishing these TACCs will be key to their success, sustainability, and growth.
In spite of the significant growth in the use of information technology and the Internet in Egypt, there are still several challenges that the information society is currently facing. These challenges, many of which are common among Arab, African, and other developing countries, include the following:
To conclude, it is clear to the newly established information society in Egypt that there is still a long way for the information and telecommunication revolution. There is a growing need for innovative solutions for speeding up the ongoing development, expanding public awareness, and enhancing public access to information and communication services. In addition, there is a lot to be gained from cooperation and exchange of experiences and expertise across boarders with the rest of the world, especially with the existence of regional organizations and fora that can support such cooperation and cross-fertilization.