Mauritius - Opinion
Mauritian hopes of "cyber-island" remain a dream

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afrol News, 4 November - Despite all the hype surrounding the recent initiatives for making Mauritius a "cyber-island", the reality of the situation is actually very different.

Mauritius, together with Ethiopia, remain the only countries in the whole of the African continent and Indian Ocean, in which the ISP sector has not yet been liberalised. Despite boasting the highest teledensity in the region, the whole economy is actually victim of a telecommunications monopoly - a price that perhaps will mean Mauritius will take years to catch up with other countries.

Internet services were initially offered by a subsidiary of Mauritius Telecom - Telecom Plus, back in 1996-7. It was not the first attempt though - all private requests (including those from major carriers) to offer retail Internet connectivity were turned down by the state-owned monopoly (on the grounds that this is a service that 'they' could offer sometime in future).

Instead of making it widely accessible to the public though (especially when the per capita national income is on the low side), the PTT has chosen to "cream" those who can afford, with little concern for the rest of community, in particular the less well off and academic world.

On the other hand, the Government's advisors (partly through the National Computer Board) are unfortunately made up of people who are there for political reasons instead of their competencies. As a result, laws are passed by people who understand little about the implications of IT for the economy. For them, IT is a political and power game.

Political parties have been voted in and out, and all of them gave the same promise - to liberalise the telecommunications industry. Per the original WTO agreement, Mauritius was to open up its telecommunications market by 2002. Then, this agreement was conveniently revised to the latest date allowed by the WTO - 2004.

In the meantime, the government refused to open up this sector. Previously because they wanted to sell off their 40% PTT shareholding to France Telecom, so they had to make it as attractive as possible. Now after they've sold it, the monopoly lives on, on the grounds that it's because they've sold it that they need to keep the monopoly!

As for the famed ISP licenses that were supposed to be allocated this year - even the press call this a 'soap opera'. Firstly the regulator (Mauritius Telecommunications Authority) took years before they agreed to grant any additional licences (besides the one to the PTT). When they eventually issue it, it will actually be worse than no licence at all!

Basically, it allows the ISP only the possibility to offer dial up services. Even then, they need to sign an interconnection agreement with the PTT to allow them! The bottom line - no ISP to date wants to operate with the conditions imposed by the PTT as it just doesn't make business sense.

Desperate to show some results (since the private sector refuses to embark in a business madness operating under such conditions), the Telecommunications Minister now wants to make the Postal Service an ISP! A postal service with staff who've never even used a computer (none of the postal service's outlets have any computers whatsoever) - now we'll have this staff selling us connectivity. That would be interesting to watch.

(Note that the same Telecommunications Minister declared that they're going to wire the whole country with fibre optic, and bring cable, yes, cable to each and every home of the country. Perhaps he should change for better advisers before making such declarations, as he was appropriately hammered in the press when it became clear that Mauritius doesn't have the finance to embark on such grandiose projects - especially when poverty, and an ever increasing gap between the social classes, is becoming a serious problem for the country).

What about the cybercity? The Government of India has issued a massive line of credit to the Mauritian Government, who aspires to make it as successful as the ones in India. But, hang on - India produces 125,000 computer graduates a year. Mauritius doesn't even have 10% of that number as computer graduates for the whole economy! Even then, many of them have been trained back in the days of the punch cards! Now cut them from the rest of the world with exorbitant telecommunications charges, how do you think those graduates will evolve? Reading computer magazines averaging Rs 500 (US$17) a piece? That's 10% of the salary of a starting computer technician.

Sure, there is money to build now. Build what? Fancy buildings? They are negotiating to get their own connectivity independent of the PTT's. That initially seemed a promising route - Alas, the PTT strikes again. They want to be the one who'll provide the overseas connectivity - so, here we go again with a company that got used to customers begging them because they don't have any other alternative.

But they're missing the whole point - buildings do not make a cybercity. People do - people with intellectual capital, because in the new economy, the real assets are the knowledge workers. Sadly so, the Mauritians live in an environment of corruption and political protectionism - promotion is not based on knowledge and competence, but who you know: which is enough to scare off all the fresh graduates trying to come back after years of studies abroad (in fact, very few choose to return to their country. The government currently forces the scholars to sign a bond to make sure they have to come back to Mauritius to work. Even then, many prefer to repay that bond instead of getting stuck).

Just mention VOIP and the PTT will hunt high and low to outlaw any companies trying to offer those services. The irony is that the public is making use of the PTT's own internet gateway to use VOIP. The regulator (fuelled by the PTT) hits back with the ground that those using VOIP are using a service offered by PTT (the internet) but depriving the PTT of another (IDD voice calls), thus VOIP calls are punishable by law. Indeed, threatening letters and equipment seizures have been used to push back into line those that seek to evade this absurd law.

The foundation businesses (agriculture, textile/manufacturing) are running out of steam. Tourism, following the WTC terrorist attack, is heading for a serious dive.

There's high hopes of making Mauritius an information-based economy, being a premier IT service supplier. With the policies in place for now till 2004, one shouldn't be surprised if Mauritius stays in the dark ages. Indeed, a recent survey by the United Nations has already put Mauritius far behind other countries in Africa, in the telecommunications industry. 

So, for now (at least till 2005), the "cyber-island" will remain, well, just a (cyber) dream...

 

The author of this opinin article wishes to remain anonymous "in order to describe the island's dilemma with complete frankness".

Source: This article is reproduced with special permission from Balancing Act


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