WSIS Action Line 1 emphasizes the role of government in the promotion of information and communication technologies (ICT) for development. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has made significant progress on this through a series of innovative programmes, funding opportunities and groundbreaking initiatives.
The UAE's WSIS National Committee, which includes the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), has made impressive efforts to galvanize community leaders and government and non-government organizations to commit to the achievement of the WSIS objectives. Much has been achieved and UAE is committed to making progress on the higher objectives of WSIS by 2015.
The UAE WSIS National Report, launched at WSIS Forum 2011 is an important reference that documents every step taken by the country in its journey to achieve WSIS goals.
"WSIS Forum is a unique global platform which provides an opportunity for reviewing and addressing the critical issues for WSIS implementation. We are very grateful to ITU for giving us an opportunity to sponsor and to be a strategic partner for WSIS Forum 2011 and we are equally honoured to share our successful experience with all the participants through the launching of UAE WSIS National Report. The United Arab Emirates is committed to WSIS goals and implementation of its Action Lines,” said Mohamed Nasser Al Ghanim, Director General of the UAE Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.
As regards Action Line 2, which focuses on the need to develop information and communication infrastructure, UAE is now ranked first among Arab countries for the quality of its infrastructure and connectivity, according to the Network Readiness Index 2009-2010.
The ICT Development Index (IDI), developed by ITU, also profiled UAE as the highest ranked country in the Arab States region (see Table), and ranked it 29 globally. The IDI, contained in the report”Measuring the Information Society 2010”, combines 11 indicators related to ICT access, use and skills into a single composite index. The IDI includes 159 countries which enables benchmarking both on a global and a regional level. The report categorizes each of the 159 countries into one of four groups used to describe the level of ICT within the economy: higher, upper, medium and low.
According to the UAE WSIS National Report, the country is now ranked fourth in the world after Japan, the Republic of Korea and Hong Kong (China) in terms of fibre-optic penetration, with 30.8 per cent of households and businesses connected to fibre-optic networks. Etisalat plans to spend USD 1.36 billion to build a nationwide network by the end of 2011.
WSIS Action Line 2 underlines the importance of ICT infrastructure as a key to social and economic development. Governments are encouraged to oversee and enhance connectivity by providing better broadband access; connecting educational institutions such as schools, universities and research centres; and making access to ICT inclusive for minorities and small societies.
Promoting competition in the telecommunication sector has also benefited the development of ICT infrastructure. Liberalization began in 2007 with the licensing of a second mobile operator Du, and under TRA supervision, there are ambitious plans for network sharing to benefit consumers. Sharing networks between Etisalat and Du means consumers can choose their service provider for voice, Internet and television. Such competition not only encourages development of the ICT industry, but also acts as a stimulus for overall economic development of the country.
In February 2010, TRA licensed satellite services to Yahsat to install, operate and manage satellite and ground networks in the country. And in July 2010, TRA granted Star Satellite Communications Company (Star) a ten-year satellite and broadcasting service licence. These developments were aimed at establishing UAE as a premier telecommunications hub by offering world-class satellite services.
To further benefit consumers and improve infrastructure, a switchover to digital-only television is planned for December 2013. TRA has made UAE one of the first countries in the Middle East to plan a switchover, which will give citizens better picture and sound quality, as well as access to multimedia transmissions.
A key element in the UAE government strategy has been to get the legal framework right. The UAE telecommunication market has grown from USD 8.2 billion in 2005 to USD 13.6 billion in 2011, achieving a 20 per cent rate of annual growth. Much of this has been due to the new legal framework with TRA issuing several regulations to foster advancements in the ICT sector. An e‑commerce law was introduced in 2006 (Federal Law No. 1 pertaining to Electronic Commerce and Transactions) under which TRA can license and oversee the activities of e‑commerce providers. Etisalat, the national telecommunication provider, has been licensed as a Certification Service Provider under the law.
To further drive e‑commerce, TRA signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Dubai eGovernment to act as partners on the Trustae Initiative. The award of the Trustae Seal to a company trading online protects citizen's rights and encourages a better quality of service by guaranteeing that online businesses with such a mark will follow a strict code of conduct in their e‑commerce dealings.
As well as creating the legal framework for ICT development to prosper, UAE has set up funding programmes to stimulate industry growth. The ICT Fund is the first of its kind in the Middle East and is designed to support innovative research and development projects and to provide education and training in the field. In terms of research and development, the fund will support start-ups and nurture business incubators as well as supporting the creation of high-quality research and development institutions. For education, the fund will make available scholarships for those keen to work in the ICT sector and it will also provide support to the establishment of institutions offering ICT-related courses.
There is also the Sheikh Khalifa Fund that has the specific goal of supporting small and medium-sized businesses. The fund focuses on the training of UAE nationals so that they can manage projects independently as part of a drive to transform Abu Dhabi into an international investment hub.
Connecting with citizens
Perhaps most notable in reviewing the UAE's progress on WSIS Action Line 1, are the innovations to enhance interaction with citizens through ICT services.
The My Government Initiative, launched by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, is an integrated portal connecting people directly with five federal entities.
The initiative aims to develop services that would ensure improvement in the federal government's operational and service efficiency - one of the main pillars of the UAE Government Strategy 2011-2013. It also intends to improve the quality of life for UAE nationals, as well as for expatriates, in line with the country's Vision 2021. Sheikh Mohammed launched the portal by sending an e‑mail message of his appreciation to five federal entities for taking the lead in the development of government services.
In the first phase, citizens can interact with the Ministry of Labour, the Electricity and Water Authority, the Sheikh Zayed Housing Program, the National Transport Authority and the Ministry of the Interior. The aim is to improve the services being delivered by these authorities allowing citizens to give feedback to the service providers and thereby enhancing their own quality of life.
Public employees are also benefitting from the government's push to use ICT for development. The Sheikh Kalifa Government Program, which was introduced in 2006, encourages government authorities to promote a culture of creativity, loyalty and excellence among public employees. The Excellence Program completed its first phase in October 2010 by recognizing and awarding those models which had demonstrated how to achieve a sustainable information society within the federal government.
A further example of connecting citizens has been an e‑books store and e‑library scheme, which was launched in December 2010 by Etisalat and China's Huawei Technologies. The pilot project has been launched at the Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research and allows students and faculty members to access hundreds of written and audio books online free-of-charge. In addition, through their smartphones and personal computers, students can access lecture notes and laboratory notes. Etisalat plans to extend the scheme to other universities in UAE, and eventually to publishing houses within and outside the country, so that students and consumers can access a wide spectrum of online content.
"Our initiatives along WSIS Action Lines have seen considerable progress highlighting our commitment. Industry leaders have been encouraged to work with the government to create an effective public-private partnership with the ultimate goal of achieving sustainable development. This encourages innovation among small and medium businesses and advances research and development activities," comments Mr Nasser Al Ghanim.