Another year has come and gone again; so quickly that I can vividly remember writing similar article a year ago, like it was yesterday. Yet, that time has come again when we look back at the activities in our ICT sector, both our triumphs and our failures. The former often form part of our legacy, while we reflect and embrace the latter and find ways to improve on them in the ensuing year. So, let’s take a look at what happened in 2013!
We saw significant improvements in ICT education as Starz College of Technology continues to increase its capacity to accommodate more students. We heard about the W.V.S. Tubman University’s drive to include a Computer Science Program in its offerings in 2014. This program provides significant benefits to Liberia as it will be one of the very few that will prepare students for software development. SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT in Liberia has been one of the many areas of ICT for which I have been a passionate advocate. I believe it will enable us to be PROSUMERS (producers and consumers), divorcing us from the culture of being mere CONSUMERS. This initiative will also give young Liberians the skills needed to develop software and systems that can AUTOMATE processes in government (e-government), business and other areas.
We saw one of Lonestar Cell Foundation’s many efforts to build a “digital Liberia” in Harper, Maryland County. In collaboration with W.V.S. Tubman University, Lonestar Cell Foundation embarked upon a US$100,000 ICT capacity building initiative that is intended to benefit the Harper community as well as high school students in that area. It will give them the opportunity to garner ICT training and develop the capacity needed to make them knowledge workers; the type of workers needed in a 21st century environment and in particular, what will soon be a digital Liberia.
In our ICT sector, we currently have SIX(6) major players or stakeholders: Ministry of Post and Telecom (Policy Maker), Liberia Telecom Authority (Regulator), LIBTELCO (National Operator), (other operators- Lonestar, Cellcom, Novafone, West Africa Telecom), ICT Schools and institutions, and ICT Firms.
The Ministry of Post and Telecom makes policies and handles the postal services. It has made strides with EMS and other postal services. LIBTELCO has made strides; it has CDMA, one of the best technologies. We managed to connect to the ACE optical fiber cable (although it seems we may have paid for more than what we need). The other operators have made significant strides too: Sim card used to be $65, today it’s about a dollar or less. Previously, you’d have to stand in line at LTC (now LIBTELCO) to make a phone call to the USA. Today, I am able to make a phone call to the USA from RiverGEE.
We saw Internet access increase. Today, more than 5 STM1s have been lit and capacity on them is running out fast. This means, the number of DIGITAL CITIZENS in Liberia has increased as well. We now have ONLINE RADIO stations, we can chat and video conference, and we can watch videos online (despite latency and other performance issues). We have slowly and painfully begun ONLINE LEARNING SERVICES.
Our churches have embraced and are beginning to integrate technology to help build capacity of their members. In addition, they have begun using ICTs to bring the message of the Lord to Liberians. Today, churches use modern sound systems, lighting systems, communication systems, wireless microphone systems, etc… Additionally, there has been a paradigm shift in how the word is delivered in some churches; churches now use multimedia (i.e. Powerpoint Presentation) to deliver the word of the Lord.
We have seen the social media’s impact on our democracy and our economy. We have seen our Civil Societies utilize technology to enhance our democracy through their presence on the World Wide Web and the social media.
We saw a “renaissance” that phased out what we knew as Comium, giving birth to what we now know as Novafone. This “renaissance” brought a new experience in mobile phone and Internet services to Liberians. We also saw Internet subscription costs drop noticeably as was observed by West Africa Telecom’s (WAT) subscribers.
Much is being done to ensure that broadband reaches the customer (LAST MILE technology). The innovative endeavors of our private operators (Lonestar, Cellcom, Novafone, West Africa Telecom, et al) have made most Liberians “leapfrog” into the 21st century. They continue to provide new experiences in terms of access to the Internet and mobile phone services, despite the 4G and 3.9G debate that lures.
Our Government continues to realize and embrace the benefits of using Free and Open Source Software (which is also mentioned in its National ICT Policy Document). Free and Open Source Software or FOSS is being implemented at the Liberian Legislature through the support of the National Democratic Institute of International Affairs under the sponsorship of USAID. Indeed, FOSS has penetrated the Liberian spectrum and is gaining a momentum (www.Legislature.Gov.Lr).
We saw the reappointment of a Board of Commissioners at LTA with the retention of majority of the previous commissioners, and the advent of two new commissioners. We also saw the Internet Society of Liberia (ISOC) elect its new corps of officers and its attempt to rejuvenate to be a part of Internet Governance in Liberia. And while the above occurred, we managed to participate in the West Africa Internet Governance Forum.
Above, I have mentioned our most significant achievements that occurred during and even before the year 2013. Below, I tell you about some of our shortcomings and a few developments I consider to be unfortunate.
Despite the progress made above, we are still struggling to understand the impact that technology can have on our economy, most especially, on education. Hence, our struggle to integrate technology in schools; not even at university level.
We did not see Information and Communications Technology Association of Liberia (ICTAL) that was founded a year ago do much in terms of advocacy in ensuring equity within Liberia’s ICT sector and the integration of ICT in Liberia
And disappointingly, our universities still have students standing in lines to register courses, and classes are still crowded with students looking from windows of classrooms. The solution to this problem is the implementation of online registration and distance learning programs.
We are connected to a submarine fiber optic cable yet our government institutions are not fiber-optically connected. We do not have e-services (e-health, e-banking, e-commerce, e-agriculture, etc). We have not automated services in ministries, agencies, organizations, etc. Schools have not integrated technology in their classrooms and their curricula, and most disappointingly, the Ministry of Education has no National Education Technology Plan. Our policy makers, I have come to realize, still view ICT as merely getting online to check email, ignoring the fact that even our funding partners like the UN, USAID, and EU have all indicated that ICT is sine qua non to economic development.
I am deeply disheartened to mention in this article, two developments that occurred during the year in review. They include the “fiasco” that occurred at Novafone involving the use of a “SIM BOX” to defraud the government, and the suspension of the entire Board of Directors of LIBTELCO. It is my hope that the Novafone issue will be resolved and their reputation restored. In addition I would like to see a solution to the issues surrounding to suspension the Board of Directors of LIBTELCO, so that it can be restored, or replaced (if necessary) to allow them to continue providing governance to that entity.
Finally, I am sure I have omitted a lot of developments that occurred in the ICT sector in 2013. But that was not done on purpose, so please forgive me if I did. I look forward to 2014 to see radical changes in our ICT sector; changes that will lead to capacity building, increased access, and innovation. Innovation is the driving force behind competition and ultimately sustainable economic growth.
Until next week, Carpe diem and Merry Christmas!