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Regional Strategies > Articles > e-Dinars, e-Tijara: Tunisia Embarks On Ambitious Internet Plan >

e-Dinars, e-Tijara: Tunisia Embarks On Ambitious Internet Plan

Madanmohan Rao reports from the Arab Internet Summit in Tunis

The concept "algorithm" -- on which much of computer science is based - derives its name from Arab mathematician Abdallah Al-Khwarizmi, who was born in Baghdad in the 8th century A.D.  Though Arab countries seem to have fallen behind in the IT race today, some are making determined attempts to catch up.

While the Internet population worldwide is expected to double in the period 1999 to 2002, the Internet user base in the Middle East and Africa is expected to triple; there will be an estimated 12 million Internet users in the Middle East by 2002.

Delegates from over a dozen countries gathered in Tunisia's capital city, Tunis, for the second annual conference on "The Internet and E-Commerce," focusing on national and regional Internet developments.

With an economy more akin to a small southern European country than other African or Arab countries, Tunisia has taken active interest in the Internet economy with top-level support straight from President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisia, the smallest of the Northern African countries, has a diverse market-oriented economy with significant agricultural, industrial and tourism sectors. In 1991 it also became the first Arab and African country to connect to the Internet.

Countries like Tunisia can take advantage of global trends in outsourcing infotech work via the Net, according to keynote speaker George Sadowsky, professor at New York University and vice-president of the global Internet Society (www.isoc.org). "One of the best examples of a country leveraging the Net for online outsourcing is India," said Sadowsky.

Tunisia has begun embarking on an ambitious strategy to develop its national Internet sector and become a regional player as well. The situation with respect to international bandwidth, phone tariffs, Internet access rates, and reduction on computer import duties is improving.

In November 1997, a commission chaired jointly by the Ministry of  Communications and the Ministry of Commerce drew up a national agenda for electronic  commerce. Cyberlaws supporting e-commerce and digital signatures (based on the uniform law proposed by UNCITRAL) have just been passed, and numerous public and private online services allowing Tunisian citizens to take advantage of e-commerce are being rolled out.

To catalyse information society activities in the country, the Tunisian Agency for Internet (ATI) was established in April 1996, with Tunisie Telecom owning 51 percent of its shares and private investors owning the rest. ATI provides value-added datacom services, runs the Internet backbone in Tunisia, and manages the .tn domain.

One of the more notable emerging projects is TradeNet Tunisia (www.tradenet.com.tn), a one-stop online documentation and financial service for importers, exporters and freight organisations. "This secure and convenient service will cut down on process delays in international shipping, and help grow other B2B marketspaces," said Karim Gharbi, director of TradeNet Tunisia.

Another successful initiative launched in October 1998 was PubliNet (public Internet centres), to increase Internet access options via community centres; there are close to 200 such public access centres in the country today.

Dozens of companies have launched e-commerce services as part of a pilot project covering a wide range of Tunisian products, including crafts, foodstuffs (dates, olive oil, desserts), textiles, tourist services, stamps, and hotel reservations.

Rapid Post (the Tunisian carrier for express postage) has reduced the tariffs of transport for products sold through Internet in order to promote this new type of service, according to Lamia Chaffai Sghaier, e-commerce manager at ATI.

Many of these projects are grouped under the Tunisia Shopping Gallery site (www.ecom.tn). Targeted countries for sales include the U.S., Germany, France, Switzerland, Lebanon, Hong Kong, and Holland.

In 1999, "Internet Caravans" (www.caravanes-internet.tn) were started in Tunisia to take mobile workshops about the Internet around the country.

In November each year, an "Internet Week" series of events is held, featuring seminars, trade shows and training sessions; the highlight is a "Web Oscars" awards ceremony broadcast on national TV honouring the best Tunisian Web sites of the year. There are also "Open Internet Days" in November when PubliNets offer free Internet access to all users.

All universities and schools are expected to be online by 2002. Internet access is available via a local call across the whole country.

The Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) recently launched an SSL-based secure payment server called e-Tijara for users of Mastercard and Visa credit cards. e-Tijara is operated by ATI in cooperation with major Tunisian banks. Digital certificates are currently handled by U.S.-based Verisign until a Tunisian certification authority is installed.

Raken.com, an e-commerce site for Mediterranean, Arab and African art and decoration, is one of many vendors in Tunisia now using ATI's e-Tijara payment server.

ATI is also assisting the Tunisian postal agency with the upcoming smart card project called e-Dinar (e-dinar.poste.tn). These cards will be available at most post offices in denominations of 20 to 50 dinars, are re-chargeable, and can be used for consumer e-commerce, said Abdelkrim Bouzid, CTO at La Poste Tunisienne.

Tunisian ministries have an active presence on the Web (www.ministeres.tn), as well as the national broadcast media (TunisiaTV.com and RadioTunis.com). Other notable Tunisian sites include Yellow Pages Tunisia (www.pagesjaunes.com.tn, ad agency Belmakett (www.belmakett.com.tn), Amen bank (www.amenbank.com.tn), hotel reservation site Orangers.com.tn, and portal TunisiaOnline.com.

Vertically-focused sites in other parts of the Arab world - such as Cairo-based real-estate site e-Dar.com - are also eyeing expansion plans into Tunisia. "We currently offer real-estate and product information for homes and offices, as well as virtual-tour features based on IPIX imaging technology," said Tarek Taha, managing director of e-Dar.

Alcatel, Ericsson and Nortel have local production facilities in Tunisia, and are participating in digitisation of local telecom networks. Thanks to its strategic location on the Mediterranean shores, Tunisia is connected to the SEA-ME-WE-2 submarine fiber optic cable and is also a member of ARABSAT, INMARSAT, EUTELSAT and INTELSAT.

In addition to two private ISPs (Planet Tunisie and 3S Global Net) for commercial and consumer accounts, there are seven other ISPs in Tunisia providing access to government agencies (ATI), research centres (IRSIT -- Regional Institute for Computer Sciences and Telecommunications), universities (Khawarizmi Computing Centre), schools (INBMI -- National Institute of Office and Computer Technology), health institutes (CIMSP -- Ministry of Public Health Computer Centre), agricultural organisations (IRESA -- Higher Agricultural Institute for Research and Teaching), and telecom affiliates (Tunisie Telecom).

IRESA also runs teletraining courses for farmers, and CIMSP helps hospitals set up Intranets and conduct teleradiology services with other hospitals in cities like Marseilles, France.

The government is also assisting start-ups with incubator facilities. One such start-up, Intelligent DSP, works with the New Delhi office of Analog Devices to develop remote monitoring services for electrical power meters using WAP.

Tunisian companies are also actively harnessing freeware and shareware operating systems and servers based on Linux, said entrepreneur Jamel Sghaier, who runs operations for RedHat Linux in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia (www.linux.com.tn.

"But the operating environment for private ISPs still needs improvement. The government telecom should actually be paying private ISPs for traffic generated via Internet access calls, as in some European countries," suggested Mohamed Garbouj, CTO of ISP Planet Tunisie (www.planet.tn).

Due to these high costs, most Tunisian Web sites end up being hosted abroad in the U.S. or Europe, said Garbouj.

Primary deterrents to Internet diffusion in Arab countries include lack of awareness and education about the Net, inadequate infrastructure, and low level of locally relevant content and services, according to a recent research paper by Mohamed El-Naqawy, co-founder of Egyptian ISP InTouch Communication Services and a member of the Egyptian chapter of the Internet Society.

The aggregate population of the Arab countries approaches 280 million people (with about a quarter in Egypt alone), with an aggregate GDP of US$700 billion and income per capita of about $2,500.

Egypt, strategically located at the passage point for several undersea fiber optic telecom and datacom cables (FLAG, Africa-1, SEA-ME-WE2), leads the Arab countries in Internet usage and accounts for 440,00 users out of a total of 5 million users in the Arab bloc.

Among the other 20 Arab countries, Tunisia is at fifth position with 110,00 users. There are 400,000 users in the United Arab Emirates, 300,000 in Saudi Arabia, and 227,500 in Lebanon.

Intra-regional Internet traffic will reach 2 Gbps in 2003 and international Internet traffic for the Middle East will cross 10 Gbps in 2003, according to Samer Halawi, regional sales director for FLAG Telecom (www.flagtelecom.com) in Dubai.

FLAG (Fiber-optic Link Around the Globe) has points of presence in Asia (including Mumbai), Europe and North America, and offers basic Internet connectivity as well as data hosting and caching services to clients like AT&T, British Telecom, China Telecom, and Tunisie Telecom.

"Regional demand for bandwidth is being spurred by explosion in the Internet user base, bandwidth-hungry applications, improving last-mile solutions, and entry of new players due to deregulation," said Salawi.

In other Internet developments in the Middle East, Dubai has announced the launch of a tax-free Internet City which has attracted more than 190 companies including Microsoft, Compaq, IBM and Oracle. Dubai Internet City has no corporate or personal income tax, allows foreign companies to maintain 100 percent ownership of their businesses, and aims to become a "regional oasis" for local startups.

Numerous Indian IT companies are active in Gulf countries like Dubai, but not as many are in the Maghrebi Arab countries of North Africa. "Opportunities are opening up here in e-government services," said Fethi Amara, project manager at eGulf.com, an e-services company founded by Indian entrepreneur Suresh Mani, with offices in Mumbai, Dubai, U.S., U.K., and France.

Other areas ripe for harnessing for online global media markets include Arabic music, which is receiving significant international attention thanks in part to pop star Sting's recent track "Desert Rose," which features Algerian singer Cheb Mami. Popular sites like Mazika.com now feature discographies, fanmail, and music downloads of Arab musicians.

Japanese management guru Ken-ichi Ohmae, in his recent besteseller "The Invisible Continent," observes that smaller and more nimble countries like Ireland and Singapore have done a remarkable job of transforming themselves into regional "e-hubs" in the information age.

Perhaps a similar approach would serve Tunisia well too, especially if it harnesses the talent and capital of its diaspora and leverages its strategic location between Africa, Europe and the Arab bloc.

Tunisia has the region's most detailed and progressive Internet legislation, though it has drawn some criticism from organisations like Amnesty International and Reporters Without Frontiers over charges of monitoring sensitive email traffic and selectively filtering Web sites.

Still, Tunisia has a more promising future in the Internet Age among the Arab-African bloc. "We hope our upcoming Internet Society chapter of Tunisia will help galvanise consensus for the Internet economy among the private, academic, and government sectors," concluded ATI's Lamia Chaffai.


The writer can be reached at madan@techsparks.com

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