INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY
A LOT NEEDS TO BE DONE TO MAKE IT USE COMMON

While the latest technology and products are being offered in Pakistan simultaneously, the poor level of literacy often creates problems

By SHABBIR H. KAZMI
Dec 05 - 11, 2005

Some of us may not be fully aware or able to comprehend how technology is affecting our daily life. At time we even don't realize that we are using the latest and state-of-the-art technology, the reason being that we have become so used to these equipment. The technology is being developed and deployed rapidly and the transition is so smooth that we often don't realize the change. It is only because we are least interested in knowing about the technology but always looking for convenience.

One such example is Auto Teller Machines (ATMs). People have quickly learnt to use these because of convenience but hardly bother to know how these machines work. Previously if one had accounts in more than one banks and he/she wanted to withdraw cash has to physically visit all these branches. Now the same person can withdraw cash from his/her various accounts by using the same ATM even at mid-night. It may look very simple but involves extensive use of technology, which is not apparent but deeply imbedded. This involves hardware as well as software but the ultimate controller is human being.

Another example is telephone, which we have been using for ages. However, new options are being offered almost on daily basis and the beauty is that cost of equipment as well as call per minute is going down very fast. We have moved from fixed line telephony to mobile and then to satellite. While outreach growing cost is going down and becoming affordable even for the common man, cellular phone is no longer a status symbol.

Yet another and fastest growing segment is Internet. Its use, speed and quality is improving at incredible pace only because its support by computer manufacturers and telecommunication companies. Companies like Intel are constantly coming up with higher speed processors and building blocks. Telecommunication companies are constantly broadening the bandwidth and data warehousing technology is helping in achieving greater atomization. Some of the critics say that while the automization should have made our lives easier, the fact is that it creates more problems rather than providing solutions.

This situation is mainly due to the fact that while the latest technology and products are being offered in Pakistan simultaneously, the poor level of literacy often creates problems. However, others say that level of literacy may be an issue but growing use of computers, mobile phones, ATMs and Internet suggest that poor literacy may be an issue but people are learning fast to use the latest technologies. NCR has recently celebrated sale of 1000th ATM is Pakistan, which is also a milestone for the company. Mobilink has also achieved sale of 10 million mobile phone connections. Growth in number of Internet users is also phenomenal.

Globally Information Technology (IT) has assumed unprecedented importance. In Pakistan, the present government has accorded high priority to this sector. One of the prerequisites for ensuring sustained growth of the sector and its contribution towards the economy is provision of a definite framework. The various prerequisites are appropriate policy, legislative, financial, and operational guidelines. The government, as the facilitator, enabler, and promoter has to evolve an effective Policy and Action Plan. This has to aim at creating the framework for nurturing the industry. It has to be fully responsive to the dynamic forces of change that can affect its future growth.

The present policy aims at harnessing the potential of Information Technology, as a key contributor to development of Pakistan. The broad-based involvement of all the key stakeholders is considered a must for its sustainable development. Core IT Policy strategies focuses several key areas.

Human resource development has been assigned the top priority for the development of local IT industry and to position Pakistan as an important player in the international IT market. Under this plan, a large pool of academically as well as technically skilled IT manpower is being developed to meet the local and export needs. The policy envisages the establishment of specialized IT educational institutions, National Testing and Accreditation Services and Educational Intranet, strengthening of existing IT Institutes and hiring of faculty from abroad.

The local IT industry requires a world class enabling infrastructure. A plan for deployment of this infrastructure has been initiated and a series of IT Parks and Incubators across the country are being established. These parks will be equipped with modern facilities and offer matchless incentives, to provide a one-stop shop, for prospective investors in the IT industry. Telecom infrastructure is being modernized to offer broadband access as the backbone and local loops. Other steps include establishment of IT Boards in provinces, increasing teledensity and introducing new technologies such as wireless local loop for data and cable Internet.

Software development industry offers the highest growth potential and forms a major segment of the vast IT market and will continue to play this role in the future. Integrated efforts to develop software industry with focus on exports (in addition to the local market) are being undertaken. These include encouraging local software houses to participate in government sponsored projects, local content development, Urdu and regional language software development, promotion of software exports through establishment of international marketing network, special bandwidth rates for software exporters, encouraging joint ventures, hiring of international consultants for global business development and fiscal and regulatory incentives for software exporters through State Bank of Pakistan.

The policy recommendations in the area of hardware industry development do not seek to initiate aggressive competition with the developed countries. Rather, these measures focus on developing the areas that are within Pakistan's reach, in terms of technology and resources, and in which the country could have a competitive advantage. Major measures include the waiver of duties and taxes on the hardware, incentives to reduce the cost of raw material and inputs, encourage and fund research and development in the universities and engineering colleges through faculty chairs, matching grants and focused joint projects.

The growing use of Internet has already revolutionized the way people communicate and access information. The basic principles to facilitate extensive and intensive use of the Internet by growth by encouraging competition, avoidance of un-necessary regulations, provision of low cost, reliable and broadband Internet access, Universal Internet Access in the areas connected with the telecom network, free Internet access for public sector universities and support for the development of national Internet content.

The government has decided to provide various fiscal and non-fiscal incentives to nurture, develop, and promote the use of IT in organizations for improving their efficiency and productivity. The strategies focus on promotion of venture capital industry through incentives, recognition of software development as a priority industry for financing by the banks and DFIs, creation of investment friendly environment, building investors confidence and changes in rules to allow the technology companies to be listed on stock exchanges of Pakistan.

Despite the phenomenal growth it is often felt that there is need for undertaking IT promotion and awareness campaigns. The national strategy includes provision of continued support and funds by the Export Promotion Bureau for the participation in world IT/computer trade fairs, exchange of delegations, posting of IT specialists in Embassies and Consulates, promotion of IT use by the Head of the Government, Ministers, and all other key figures who can influence public opinion at all public and private forums, declaration of the next fiscal year as IT Year and organization of special events during the current year including national and international exhibitions.

To embark upon an aggressive program to improve efficiency and provide quality services to the citizens of Pakistan, IT has been inducted at all levels of government. Key projects thus launched would include Citizen Online, Electronic Government Project and e-Commerce Network. The work has been going on but it is often felt that the measures lack focused approach and lack of awareness among the people, who have been made responsible for executing these projects.

To provide protection and enhance the confidence of users, providers, and facilitators of information services, legislation based on the recommendations of the Working Group comprising IT and legal experts have been framed. Action in the areas of Digital Signature Act, Intellectual Property and Copyright Act and the Consumer Protection Act, has been started. The government seeks legislative approval of changes to statutes that will encourage electronic commerce and revise statutes that mandate a paper-based or manual process.

A regulatory framework is essential to avoid violating policy goals and direction. It would be ensured that excessive regulations do not stifle industry investment and growth. In devising a useful regulatory framework, the focus has been on creating a fair, equitable and competitive environment, based on the principles of free market and open access.

OUTLOOK

Information Technology has an enormous potential for growth, because its use is still not very common. Pragmatic government policies, proactive approach followed by the vendors, growing awareness and affordability are fueling the growth. One may say that each stakeholder is playing its due role, but a lot more and at much faster rate has to be done. An area needing immediate attention is education, particularly in IT. However, the aim should not be to produce IT savvy only but to popularize use of IT in Pakistan's core industries. Once people get their hands on technology only then they can offer solutions in the global markets. Intel has taken a big initiative by launching 'Training of the Trainers program. Teachers can only teach efficiently and effectively if they themselves are familiar with the latest technologies.

After 9/11 most of the technology companies have faced a tough time, even bankruptcies, only because they were paying less attention to the domestic market. Pakistani companies also experienced the same with the exception of those who never ignored the domestic market. A positive development was opening up for call centers business, which has not only become a source of foreign exchange earning but also opened up new employment opportunities for the youth. Till recently India was considered the biggest competitor but Pakistan has succeeded in establishing its credentials and business is growing at a very fast pace.

Deployment of IT in government offices and move towards e-government has created new opportunities. However, local hardware and software vendors have complaints that foreign suppliers and consultants are given preference over local vendors. Another complaint is that many websites of government departments and public sector entities are not updated regularly.

Another area needing immediate attention of the government is legal cover to electronic transactions. The worst example is that people still prefer to stand in long queues under scorching heat for paying their utility bills but are not ready to ATM facility. It may also be due to lack of awareness because very few people are making payment of their utility bills through Internet facility also. As long as the number of transactions remains low the cost per transaction would be higher. Banks and other entities have made huge investment and they should spend time and money in creating awareness rather than charging exorbitant cost per transaction.