A few years ago, access to Information and Communications Technologies or ICTs (computers, phones, TV, etc) was binary: some people had access to technology, and some did not. That disparity endures even though we have made significant progress over the years. There is no doubt that we have evolved from very little or no technology, to a mobile and fast technology that actually supports a range of communications, participatory, and transactional applications. Now, access to ICTs is more essential and valuable and disconnection from ICTs is consequential for society. Addressing the cause of digital exclusion is about developing the capacity of one’s people to leverage the abundance of digital resources that we have today.
The future of ICT in Liberia is closely related to the number of obstacles that we can tackle. Some of these obstacles include our unwillingness to view ICT as a major driver of economic development, the lack of infrastructure, lack of education and competence, but most of all our unwillingness to change. This has brought about a “digital exclusion” which negatively impacts economic development in the 21st century.
Hence, in 2014 our focus should be on “digital inclusion” and not “digital exclusion.” To do this, we have to look at the digital divide from a different perspective and kindle a paradigm shift in our approach to bridging that divide. The following paragraphs are a forecast of what we should expect in the year 2014.
In 2014, technology infusion and integration will increase in Liberia, and our ICT sector will continue to progress. There will be significant changes in our ICT sector this year. We will see new faces and new players. More ICT professionals will return with new ideas and make major contribution to the sector. Many of us (ICT professionals and entrepreneurs) have and will continue to identify newer, cheaper or free, easy-to-deploy, and easy-to-use technologies. These “technologies” will be integrated in the society to create a knowledge-based environment and to enhance economic development.
We will see schools embrace and adopt more ICTs and our higher institutions will adopt more innovative ways to deliver education leveraging their “newly” acquired access to technology and internet connectivity. One of these innovative approaches includes the addition of an online learning component to their current offerings.
We may see a new initiative that will increase the number of computer programmers and software developers in Liberia. One of them is the Computer Science program that W. V. S. Tubman University is about to begin. Through institutions like Starz, UMU, AMEU, UL/India Online Program, and other capacity building firms, we will see more Liberians garner the training necessary to build systems that will help us become “e-ready”. We will see mobile classrooms and the use of social media as a teaching tool.
Broadband, as we all know, is supposed to provide fast, always-on and un-metered access to the Internet and a “free phone line while using the Internet. But the shift to broadband requires massive investment in terms of networks and infrastructure. I hate to sound pessimistic, but from the list of priorities that the Government has shown, we may have to wait a little longer to enjoy the benefits of the ACE optical fiber cable. Unless LIBTELCO or the Cable Consortium locates funding from elsewhere to build the necessary infrastructure, our chances of enjoying the benefits (e-health, e-banking, e-EVERYTHING) that ACE brings in 2014 are very slim.
But we will see Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Telecom operators bring in more innovative services and products including triple play, and online radio stations. And, as competition increases we will see better services and products at lower costs.
We may see our national operator, LIBTELCO move toward a more “demand pull” approach as compared to the “technology push” that most folks have been advocating. “Demand Pull” approach means that we devise means or ways to lure people to use our services. On the other hand, a “technology push” means that the services or products have been developed hence, demand must be created.
Banks will need to be more progressive and aggressive in ensuring that they create a more convenient and customer-service oriented environment. The “System Down” problem that faced major banks needs to go away. More importantly, with newer and better technologies available today, anything less than using those technologies to better the experiences of customers is simply a disservice to them.
In the business sector we will see more companies automate services and systems as they grasp the impact that ICTs have on competitive advantage and profits. We will see businesses invest more in their ICT capacity by updating ICT professionals' skills and roles to suit new technologies and the evolving global ICT environment. But for all of the above to occur, we will need to come up with a clearing house for best practices for ICT training. Also, Liberians, most especially young and educated Liberians, must understand that they have an obligation to educate themselves on the skills needed to participate in an increasingly broadband-mediated world. They should not only rely on government or their employers to provide build their capacities, especially at a time when the Internet provides adequate learning resources.
We would like to see the government (GoL) emerge with a plan that eliminates the currently “disorganized and dysfunctional” ICT arrangement” in which its ministries and agencies run independent ICT infrastructures, and move to a “centralized and organized” arrangement. This “centralized and organized” arrangement I am proposing involves either the full utilization of LIBTECO as a datacenter and service provider, or/and the creation of an entity that champions ICT in Liberia. Leveraging the ACE submarine optical fiber cable by integrating open source software, Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP, cloud computing, and other innovative technologies, will allow innovative solutions, efficient communications systems, and low cost computing for our government and people. This will enable the government to efficiently deliver services to tax payers.
When the above is taken into consideration and implemented, we will see some improvements in government-to-citizen transactions online (e-gov which is much cheaper than it is done via the traditional outlet. When an environment (online) is created that allows “FEWER” citizens can go in-person to government offices to carry on transactions, government will save a lot of money that would have otherwise been spent to support multiple physical locations
We know that electricity, roads, running water, and all the basic necessities of life are our government’s priorities. But our government, businesses, and other well-wishers will need understand that ICT is sine qua non to obtaining those basic needs. Just as an engineer needs AUTOCAD and other technology-related tools to develop the blueprints to build the Ganta-Harper highway, so too does the other engineer require a computer to run the electricity grids; and the doctors a good communication system to communicate with health professionals in the rural areas. Therefore, our leaders need to view ICT as a major driver of economic development, growth, and prosperity, and ensure that the year 2014 becomes a year of action. Let it be a year in which we all work towards “digital inclusion.”