Make ICT a national priority, GCCI President says – calls for coherent policy for the sector

Government needs to move with much greater haste to fashion a coherent national information and communications technology (ICT) policy if the various sectors of the society are to begin to maximise “the considerable benefits to be derived…,” President of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI) Lance Hinds has said.

“Government must work on policies that will help us execute the programmes that are necessary to develop Guyana. Once you establish the ICT infrastructure you have to establish what you are putting on that infrastructure in terms of the services that you are going to offer. We need to begin to articulate what it is that we are going to put on the e-governance network. Building an e-governance network is fine. When that gets done you need to put something on it,” Hinds told Stabroek Business.

Hinds, a vocal advocate of the liberalisation of the telecommunications sector, said that even as the era of open competition in the sector approaches, careful thought must be given to post-liberalisation.

The big players

“Government has to begin to think carefully about the kind of role it wants ICT to play in the development of the country,” Hinds said.

Asserting that a point had long been reached “where we need to move the country beyond discourse on telecommunications liberalization,” Hinds told Stabroek Business that the official sloth in fashioning an ICT policy meant that the country had fallen behind much of the rest of the region.

“Of course we are falling behind. Every day we are losing opportunities. We are missing out on the opportunities to create a role for ICT as an independent sector as well as to have it become a cross-cutting element that impacts across the other sectors of the society. The beauty with ICT has to do with how much you can do with it and the various points at which you can enter the market,” Hinds said, adding that “it is precisely because of the kinds of services and the kinds of revenues that it can bring in that we need an ICT environment and a culture of ICT in Guyana.”

Hinds told Stabroek Business that it was a matter of regret that the leading players in the private sector had, on the whole, moved well ahead of the public sector in terms of ICT development. “If you look at the private sector, the banks and the large business entities what you find is that they have invested in a 21st century ICT environment. Where it starts to fall apart is in the other sectors of the economy and the other parts of the society as a whole. The efforts to implement ICT as that enabler or that cross-cutting component in the society as a whole remain largely underdeveloped,” he said.

Towering transmis-sion towers have become the most visible symbol of ICT development

“Take the Ministry of Home Affairs; it has built a modern crime information management system. Once it gets activated and starts to work it ought to make crime-fighting more efficient. Unfortunately, that does not go for the vast majority of state agencies. What appears to be the case is that some agencies manage to get the funding and they do it. Others don’t,” Hinds said.

Asserting that ICT was “a natural fit” for the education sector, Hinds said the issue was not so much one of “replacing the traditional classroom but “about providing access to the classroom whether you are in Lethem or in Georgetown.” If you have a shortage of science teachers in Lethem, by applying the technology you should be able to have the child in Lethem access the classroom in Georgetown. The devices are there and the equipment is there. It is a matter of applying these to fit your situation… but we have been unable to do that.”

In an interview conducted following his recent election to the presidency of the GCCI, Hinds, not for the first time, raised the issue of what he said was the importance of ending the delay to the liberalisation of the telecommunications sector.

“It is really a matter of getting to that point where we have a level playing field as early as possible. The point cannot be made often enough. We desperately need a level of competition in the market that will lower bandwidth costs,” Hinds said. “The price for enterprise level connectivity that enables businesses to provide external services is prohibitive. In effect we are continuing to hurt the chances of local ICT entities to compete in the global marketplace. We are concerned about the ability of the sector to have a choice about the quality of high speed services that are on the market.

We simply cannot compete with other businesses given our charges for enterprise level bandwidth and those prices are as a result of the monopoly,” Hinds said. And according to Hinds the “conversation about telecommunications liberalisation and ICT as a whole, needs to go beyond those entities which he described as “the principal players” in the sector. “Precisely because ICT is poised to play a cross-cutting role across the various sectors of the society, the conversation needs to be opened to embrace people and institutions at other levels of the society.

We need to adjust the language to be able to reach more of the people who will be affected by the changes that ICT offers.”

Hinds, who is Chief Executive Officer of the local ICT entity Brain Street Inc said that Guyana had good reason to be “excited” about the impact that ICT can have on the education sector.

“The world is moving away from traditional text books. Children apparently do not want to read as much these days. In order for lessons to be effective they have to combine audio, video and text. They have to arrest attention. ICT is geared to do that. No one is suggesting that we fork out millions of dollars all at the same time. We can proceed incrementally,” Hinds said, adding that there are ongoing initiatives across the world that are seeking to address issues of cost. “Every day people are working on cheaper computers and other devices. A lot of work in that respect is going on in countries like India, South Africa and Nigeria.

They are among the countries with programmes aimed at building lower-cost devices. Costs are continually being pushed down to ensure that ICT becomes more widely available.”

Meanwhile, Hinds told Stabroek Business that in order for momentum to be added to the national discourse on ICT, he believed there was a case for the creation of a national body comprising both professionals in the sector and persons involved in marketing equipment. “The idea had been tried before and it did not sustain itself. Perhaps we are at a juncture where it may be worthwhile to try it again.”