|Oman’s culture, the Internet and a changing world
|Oman Telecommunications Company
Mohammed bin Ali Al-Wahaibi is the Executive President of the Oman Telecommunications Company (S.A.O.C). He is a member of the Omani Government IT executive Committee, the Chairman of Oman Optic Fiber Company, the Chairman of Oman Mobile Telecommunications Company, a member of Bank Muscat Investment Fund Steering committee, Deputy Chairman of the Arab Regional Group and Chairman of the Affiliated Infrastructure Investment and Services Group and a member of the IEEE. Mr Al-Wahaibi earned his BS degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from the University of Toledo, USA, and a MS in Telecommunications from the University of Pittsburgh, USA. He is currently working on a PhD in Information Technology at the University of Sunderland, UK. His research interest includes IT risk management, the role of culture in IT deployment and IT/IS success and failure issues.
The Internet is changing the culture in Oman. In spite of language barriers and limited computer availability, Internet use is rising. The government has contributed to this growth by aligning its strategies and policies to encourage Internet usage. For businesses, the main growth drivers are lower cost communications and access to the world’s markets. Omani youth use the Internet to be heard locally and interact globally. Oman is tackling the digital gap and creating the infrastructure for a knowledge-based economy.
The Internet was formally launched in Oman in 1997. By 2004, the number of subscribers exceeded 50,000. This growth is reflected by, and perhaps attributed to, the lower costs of home computers, commercial growth and investment in Oman, Internet cafés, online chat and gaming cultures and, more recently, wireless networks. However, the roots of this growth existed in Oman as early as the mid to late ‘80s, even before the formal launch of the Internet in Oman. This was in the form of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and Bulletin Board Systems that were run by Internet enthusiast using conventional phone lines. In a rapidly evolving and developing country such as Oman, it is therefore not surprising that this technology has been so readily embraced by its people. There is still potential for growth. In a country with a population of about 2.3 million (2003 statistics), of which around 0.55 million are expatriates, there is scope for expansion. Therefore, high objectives were set by the government to increase Internet penetration within the Omani society and promote the digital economy. To start, a high level committee for the information society, including e-Government and e-Commerce, in Oman was formed. Many of the strategies promoted by the government, now at different phases of implementation, will be fully functional before the end of this year. Furthermore, a state-of-the art information highway based on IP/MPLS is being implemented for the government by Omantel. Other initiatives include adopting Internet within the educational curriculum and building a secured banking network called Bank Net. These changes will soon restructure the way the Omani society works. Convenience for users Everything from water bills to traffic offences will soon be payable over the Internet. Travel forms, work permits and passport renewals are currently online. This should have a double impact. It will increase convenience for the users and will automate the centralisation of official information. It is just a matter of time before Internet access at home is transformed from a luxury to a utility just as essential as conventional phones are for many today. A great amount of growth is being envisaged in Oman’s economic structure and its society. With opportunities for foreign investment and several industrial projects in the pipeline, the Internet is playing a crucial part in communication and information transfer with overseas contractors and customers. This dynamic, intercontinental, phase of business growth brings, with it a large demand for cost effective, fast and reliable communication. Most companies now use web-based conferencing facilities, reducing their travel costs as well as increasing their exposure and market awareness. On a national level, a good number of small businesses are benefiting from Internet advertising and the number of websites is rapidly increasing. Also, the Internet will play a critical role in the development of tourism in the country by reaching potential visitors globally in a cost effective way. Already, several tourist projects and properties are being advertised on the web at the very early stages of construction. Oman is open for business, and what could be more open than the Internet? Users of the future Looking at the demography of Oman’s population, 70 per cent of Omanis starting to use the Internet are under the age of 18. From Internet cafes to gaming, to chatting, to buying CDs online, the youth of Oman are not only today’s main users of the Internet, but also the main users of the future. It is therefore vital that their needs are met in terms of reliability and availability of services that they expect. In addition, the Internet is also playing an active role in the development of Oman’s younger generation. Many youngsters now chat and meet online, keep in touch with friends and family, discuss current issues. From this, many groups and events have sprung up such as photography competitions and the like. Also, many teenagers and young adults, who otherwise would not have the time or the resources for further studies, are now taking online courses offered by universities abroad. The onset of the mobile phone culture has seen an increase in the use of the Internet for downloading ring-tones and images. The Internet is playing an important role in shaping a more proactive and informed generation. Most importantly, Omantel is making an effort to tackle the digital gap, create the proper infrastructure for a knowledge-based economy and further enhance awareness among the public of Internet usage. Omantel is currently deploying broadband services based on ADSL and ATM technologies with ultimate objectives to fan out and facilitate the use of the Internet in schools, in universities and among ordinary people. Other initiatives that would help bridge the digital gap are the deployment of Wi-Fi, Wireless Local Loop (WLL) and video on demand. Providing basic telecom services to the remote areas will develop the infrastructure for the future use of Internet and broaden the customer base. Expansion In brief, there is still opportunity for expansion of the Internet in Oman for both business and personal use. This is particularly true for people who live in the suburbs or in villages. Considering the trends discussed above, we can see that the Internet is entering into and, to an extent, aiding in the cultural and financial redefinition of modern Omani society as well as of the Middle East as a whole. The success these changes have already achieved shows the great influence the Internet can have on our evolving society. However, it is our role as the decision makers in the progression of this technology, to make sure that this influence is not abused or misused, not only on a local level but on a global level as well. The Arab world has an estimated four per cent of the world’s population, but has only one per cent of the world’s Internet users. This is a clear indicator of the potential growth to come in the region. We now live in a more politically and financially fragile world. Decisions and planning for growth should, therefore, take place with this fragility in mind. Accordingly, growth should progress at a rate that is suitable for society to absorb and adjust to. By taking these factors into account, we can look forward to increasing growth and enrichment of our society for a long time to come. In Oman, Internet penetration is constantly increasing among government organisations, consumers and businesses alike, and demand for high-speed broadband Internet services has never been greater. In conclusion, the popularity of the Internet continues to grow locally and internationally. The Internet has gone far beyond being a technology as such, but needs to be considered, on its own merits, as a cultural phenomenon, which although constantly evolving and changing, is leaving a permanent imprint on all cultures for now and for the future.