|IT Minister Fawaz Al Zu'bi. Robust about Jordan's connectivity.
|"Jordan today is moving from what I call 'the survival mode' to the 'participatory and driving mode.'"
When the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (MICT) was launched in April 2002, one of its main objectives was to build the infrastructure for e-government. MICT Minister Dr Fawaz Al Zu'bi pioneered the program.
Since taking office in 2000, he has made a great deal of progress in developing the telecommunications sector in Jordan. Zu'bi holds a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and Physics from Duke University and is a member of the Economic Consultative Council. He talked to The Star's Ghassan Joha. Excerpts follow:
Tell us about the latest developments regarding e-government in Jordan?
We are now moving on two tracks: First, the ADSL-systems integrator is working with our consultants at the program management office in the ministry. This office will have Jordanian program managers and be responsible for specific projects for our e-services. We are preparing the office and hiring project managers. The other track is to finalize establishing the basic infrastructure to secure a government network and have connectivity between eight ministries. All this and a data center is expected to be completed by December. An e-mail system linking all the eight ministries will develop where every employee will have his/her own e-mail address.
It seems a big initiative...
The most important thing is training. The ICDL (International Computer Driving License) training program was launched last week, 1000 employees are already taking part in this. About 20,000 employees will take part in the next three years. Every government employee will be able to take advantage of this technology and become computer and Internet literate. We are now undertaking studies for several services we'd like to offer to the public regarding car licensing, passport issuing and services concerned with the Land and Survey Dept.
Is there a role for the private sector?
We are trying to outsource the private sector. The sector is involved in ICDL training, we have agreements with nine training institutions from the private sector. We want to minimize the role of government in its favor.
How much are the investments in the IT sector?
The budget for the e-government initiative is JD 8 million for 2002-2003. About JD 5 million of this is through the socio-economic transformation plan. The USAID-run AMIR program will roll out the initial part of the e-government. They have a big contribution. The same was made recently with the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ). We need to take every possible opportunity to partner with local and international contributors. We are also working with the Italians on organizing workshops on e-government. We expect to sign a technical assistant agreement with Singapore, following the series of workshops we have with them to cooperate and learn more of their experience.
Are we seeing Jordan becoming the Middle East's Singapore or Malaysia?
I'd love to see that. It depends on how fast we employ the new and creative ideas or concepts. Much of this success depends on our attitude to change and employ these ideas. I think Jordan now is moving but the challenges are big. The most important is how can we participate globally in what is going around us. IT development in Jordan requires the development of all. Do you have plans to expand Internet literacy?
It is much more important to promote IT outside Amman. This is the concept of IT centers His Majesty King Abdallah is working on, about 67 centers will be operating in the Kingdom by the end of this year. The objective is to promote Internet in remote and rural areas. Our goal is to have Internet connectivity in all schools in the coming two years.
We feel the focus will be on the young, as around two million students are studying in schools and universities. In five years, Jordan will have a completely new IT young generation. Much of our efforts today are building blocks for the future, and the results will not be seen today. We are learning from the Canadian experience, working closely with the Canadian government on their experience in IT. We have to educate the young on the use of IT to send them later across the country to educate the people about IT.
...And the people working in IT will be all Jordanians?
Our strength is to make our IT human resources local. We need to re-direct and emphasize the change of curricula and look at our learning experience and educational approach. The Ministry of Education is addressing this issue.
Is there any development programs concerning IT sector, rather than training?
In terms of development, we have some good local companies. Three years ago we only had 1300 working in IT, today the number exceeds 10,000 people, a fact of much added-value for Jordan and a source of job opportunities. The major challenge in the IT sector is how to ensure the success of our "connecting Jordanians" program. This will connect all schools to enable students to use the computer.
Is there challenges?
I think Jordan's experience in telecommunications is unlike any other in the Middle East. What is most important is to realize we decided to make the Jordan Telecom Co into a public corporation and bring in a strategic partner. This decision allowed Jordan to move much faster. Jordan today is moving from what I call "the survival mode" to the "participatory and driving mode." We want to become a participant in what's going on in the technological economy in the world. For this you must first have the infrastructure to move to the second step. We are moving to the liberalization of JTC before 2005 [when company loses its exclusivity over the national phone services].
What do you think of the competition between two GSM providers and Jordan Telecom Co?
The competition in the mobile market is very effective, because ultimately it goes back to the citizen, the main benefactor. We are looking now on how to deal with competition in the post-liberalization stage in two years time. Liberalization doesn't mean everything becomes open. It means competition will take the better course so citizens can take maximum benefit. It means increasing the value of the sector, opening the sector for new players.
Do we expect a third GSM company to operate soon in Jordan?
We have today a new company called "Decision Analysis", including a group of consultants working on a complete market review of the mobile sector. In the coming couple of months we are expecting to see a new policy on how the situation will be in this stage.
Can you give me an estimate of investments in the ICT sector?
Investments concerning Jordan Telecom, Fastlink and MobileCom and other ICT companies are about JD 1.2 billion. I believe there will be more. If you want to attract more investments, you have to create the proper environment.
How do you evaluate the Ministry's relations with the Jordan Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (JTRC)?
I am chairman of the JTRC board. We all understand the weakness and strength of the institution. It needs a lot of capacity building. There is a need for a full-time board of JTRC commissioners to meet the mounting demands of the competition and liberalization of the telecommunications sector. These commissioners need to take over the job and handle the issue efficiently. The commission has a critical role and positive element in the development of the sector. The next step is to make JTRC more independent in the decision-making process and put in enough people with capacity to create a big jump in the sector. Our approach is a very good one.
Besides e-government, what's next for the Ministry?
There is preparations for the post-liberalization stage of the Jordan Telecom. However, now we are facing the immediate challenge of the corporatization and liberalization of the postal sector. We need to deal with the complex issue of employees in this sector. We are making all the necessary steps to have a successful postal company and the government realizes there must be sacrifices. We started recently the second phase of corporatization. We want to pursue the best policy for Jordan's post. Corporatization is expected to be completed by the end of this year, while the liberalization stage will be in the following year.