11 November 2008

Enabling and Empowering - Oman Vistas 2008

The Sultanate of Oman has made giant strides to transform the nation by diversifying its economy, harnessing Information and Communication Technologies. A plethora of ambitious projects are in progress enabling the public and private sectors and empowering its people to meet the challenges of the global economy. Under a comprehensive vision of e-Oman, the nation’s ambitious march towards a prospective future has reached key milestones. E-Oman encompasses all stakeholders to make a collaborative effort to improve efficiency and enable easy access to information and services to all members of the society.

Impressive rankings

Oman’s relatively young ICT sector is making leaping strides as revealed by the Sultanate’s e-readiness ranking having jumped up by 28 points to the 84th position in 2008 from 112th position in 2005 according to the latest UN e-Government readiness report. The rise is a reflection of the pace of progress through initiatives to build ICT infrastructure, offer electronic services and building capacity within the country harnessing the power of technology.
The e-readiness index comprises of three indices, namely, Web Measure Index, Infrastructure Index and Human Capital Index. In the e-participation index which measures that tools for dissemination of information exist for timely access and use of public information, Oman ranks notably higher in the 60th position among 192 countries.
Further, this considerable leap in ranking signifies the acceleration of e-governance related activities spurred by the public and the private sectors of the Sultanate. The move to automate the business processes and re-engineer current processes in order to deliver services through modern means that can be reached easily by the public is at a fast pace.

Strategic drive

In line with the nation’s Economic Vision 2020, subsequent to a thorough readiness assessment, a comprehensive Digital Oman strategy was formulated. Oman’s National IT Strategy was launched in May 2003, and subsequently an ICT industrial cluster called “Knowledge Oasis Muscat” (KOM) was started in September 2003 as a public-private partnership model.
The strategy highlighted infrastructure provision, ICT-sector strengthening, employment creation, e-services delivery alongside enhancement of people readiness. One of the key factors of success was identified as the acceptance and adoption of e-services by the society at large. Hence clear focus was to be given on increased awareness and empowerment of the public with required IT skills.

Administrative lead

Since its establishment in 2006, the Information Technology Authority (ITA) is spearheading the implementation of Oman’s Digital strategy under the directive of the Royal Decree 52/2006. Acting as an independent public authority under the chairmanship of H.E. Mohammed Nasser Al Khasibi, Secretary General of the Ministry of National Economy, the governing board of ITA makes vital decisions that steer the projects towards e-Oman.Pioneering the implementation of e-Oman is the mission of Information Technology Authority (ITA). E-Oman comprises of a wide range of initiatives and services that are designed and created to improve the efficiency of government services, enhances the activities of businesses and empowers individuals with skills and knowledge to meet society’s needs and expectations and to direct Oman towards becoming a knowledge-based economy.

Connect and communicate

Infrastructure being the fundamental framework, the telecommunication sector has introduced comprehensive connectivity and novel services that have transformed the way people connect and communicate. Having the tasted the power of the web, consumers now have a higher level of appetite to connect faster, be connected even on the go, and would like to both offer and use electronic services. The adoption of online system status queries, SMS-based services, corporate web presence and e-mail business communication is on the rise, challenging the existing infrastructure.

While broadband services and wireless Internet offerings have improved the Internet connectivity, the education sector is adopting VSAT connectivity to network remote public schools which currently have either wired or wireless computer labs. Bandwidth and continuous availability are now posing significant challenges to telecom companies. As more and more public connect to the digital meshwork, as the third mobile service provider and second Internet service provider enter Oman market, the connectivity charges are likely to come down escalating service levels, capacity and coverage.

Initiatives of e-Government get a significant boost with the presence of Government network and the forthcoming Ubar portal and national data centre. Government websites that currently offer informative and enquiry services will rise to the next level of transactional models once the Internet-based payment is operational this year.

Mobile power

According to the ITU reports*, the number of mobile cellular subscribers surpassed the 3 billion mark in August 2007. At current growth rates, global mobile penetration is expected to reach 50 per cent by early 2008. Although access to the Internet has been growing rapidly, the number of Internet users in developing regions remains limited. By the end of 2006, just over 10 per cent of the world’s population in developing countries were using the Internet, compared to 60 percent in the developed world.

Based on TRA statistics, at the end of 2007, there are about 261,207 fixed line subscribers and 2500,000 mobile subscribers and 70,308 Internet subscribers in Oman. In comparison mobile subscriptions is 9.3 times that of fixed line subscriptions. The mobile telecom market of Oman has been growing at an annual rate of 40 per cent. Combining the power of the growth in mobile penetration can be leveraged for increasing Internet penetration by the possibility of using wireless broadband services.

New ways of m-commerce, m-learning and m-Government have to be explored rather than waiting for higher Internet penetration to deploy e-service models. OmanMobile’s ‘Pay as you Use’ wireless Internet services and Wireless 3G+ Internet services from Nawras, which began in November 2007, have immense potential for more clients who await a reduction in cost per Kb/Gb of download.

Ubiquitous technology

Technology has permeated all economic sector of the country, and it is now a key enabler for progress. The oil and gas sector can be called ‘the cradle of technology-enabled systems’ having worked with mainframe-based for its information systems since the late 70s. The finance sector of the country has always adopted technology rapidly to ensure integrity, transparency and control over all internal and external business processes. With patient care and comfort as key focus, the health sector stands integrated with the centralized – Al Shifa Medical Record management system enabling MIS-based decision-making process. Retention of electronic medical history is the norm for most pubic and private health centres.

The education sector is actively embracing technology in its revised curriculum, higher enrolment and retention rates. With the launch of the education portal, the academic community is closely networked with the administrative, student and the parent communities. This connectivity is sure to bring about a healthy exchange of knowledge as well as parental involvement into the future champions of the digital nation.

With key ICT projects in progress and several others in the anvil, the ICT sector is one of the most vibrant sectors spurring industrial and economic activity within the country. Mobile commerce and e-governance will soon become a reality with the launch of the Oman gateway portal and national payment gateway.

Opportunities for technology education which began with the Sultan Qaboos University and the Higher Colleges of technology have now grown beyond these campuses with the advent of new universities, private colleges and approved training institutes. Over 7000* students study certificate, diploma and baccalaureate programs in Computing, IT and related disciples, offered from over 21 institutions of Oman showing an annual growth rate of 70.6 per cent. It is necessary to provide further educational and research opportunities to this growing ICT-skilled sector through master and doctoral programs.

People readiness

ITA is focusing on building capacity within the nation through a range of digital literacy measures. Public-sector trainings enable government employees to engineer public service delivery processes and implement integrated technology systems. From basic digital literacy to specialized training in vendor-based technical certifications to niche trainings in IT contract management and security, risk management has been launched, and the number of graduates is growing significantly.

Community has reflected a growing appetite for creating e-Oman by embracing a digital lifestyle. Use of mobile phones to pay utility bills and enact banking enquiries is common among the public. The affordable members of the society use computing devices ranging mobile phones, PDAs, PCs and portable laptops. Corporate community uses blackberries and palmtops to connect to the Internet and communicate using e-mails. With a set of community-based centre established and collective initiatives for women and unemployed youth roll out, the digital literacy will rise significantly bridging the digital divide.

Oman’s IT-hub KOM now houses over 60 companies including multinationals such as Microsoft, Oracle, Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, Huawei Technologies, Omantel-Siemens and NCR Corporation along with two IT colleges, namely, Waljat Colleges of Applied Science and Middle East College of Information Technology. The apex IT body of Oman ITA also is located here to work closely with the ICT cluster and drive knowledge-driven activities. The combined power of ITA, KOM and the technology colleges will escalate IT literacy rates by create centres of technical excellence to nurture the local ICT industry.

Awareness events and competitions

Oman is working towards convergence and the narrowing of the Digital Divide by undertaking to spread the benefits of its e-government projects and initiatives based on the principles of e-inclusion. In order to improve the awareness of the potentials of technology and benefits of offering products and services electronically, several seminars, road shows and conferences are being held in Oman.

Competitions for gaming, ICT-based business ideas, excellence in performance, and Omani websites have taken the quality of digital offering from Oman to a higher level. From humble beginnings, these events now witness overwhelming and competitive responses from contestants reflecting the growing potential of the nation. The intense competition standards also reflect the rising trend towards international standards and world-class performances. Events such as the COMEX, ArabTelsat, mobile gaming competition, e-Culture corner at the Muscat festival, Oman Web Awards, Big Business Idea Competition, ICT Business Forum and IT Quiz challenges are promoting the digital culture and nurturing performance excellence with awards and deserving accolades.

Challenges as opportunities for action

To keep the digital society momentum in a sustainable manner, certain impediments have to be handled tactfully. With the complex topography and the spread of the country, most projects have been deployed or concentrated around the capital. A wider spread of effect narrowing digital divide needs community-based initiatives as well as government-driven projects.

Literacy levels in terms of basic digital literacy and specialized technical expertise have to climb at a rapid rate considering the large young population of the nation which is schooling at the moment. The number of students graduating with technology qualifications have grown about 30 per cent between 2006 and 2007, and this is to be raised higher with new programmes and new specializations required by the market.

Internet usage in the Sultanate is estimated between 12 per cent and 15 per cent and the current Internet subscription growth rate between 2000 and 2006 stands at 18 per cent. This should be enhanced further with informational and transactional activities, addition of service providers and lower tariffs for selected segments of the community.

Trust and consumer protection forming the basic foundation of a digital society must be ensured. This requires enactment of appropriate e-law and electronic transaction laws along with consumer protection legislations. This must be supported with the establishment of enforcement body and redress mechanisms.

Citizen-readiness escalation has a catalytic effect if need-based learning and market demand-based offerings are focused upon. New models for creating local customized and relevant digital content suitable for local community and their culture must be formulated. The business sector must deploy matured technologies based on bottom-line traffic, tariff and quality of services and not merely on operational profits.

Optimistic future

The Sultanate is poised well with a unique strategy and a committed lead to implement the digital Oman IT strategy. The unique proposition of Oman in creating a knowledge society has gained momentum in the last two years, and the efforts will start bearing its fruits soon. At every milestone there are benefits awaiting the community as a whole both in terms of economic gains and better welfare. Led by a visionary, combined with the enthusiastic efforts of the public and private sector in harnessing technology for the progress of the nation, the future for e-Oman is bright and prospective.

* Statistics based on data from International Telecommunications Union reports, Ministry of National Economy – Economic and Social Statistics and Indicators, Ministry of Civil Services data, Telecommunication Regulation Authority reports, Omantel, Oman Mobile and Nawras officially published statistics.

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