On ICT acceleration in the midst of Covid-19
How have entrepreneurs within Oman’s ICT sector responded to the Covid-19 crisis so far?
SAID ABDULLAH AL MANDHARI: Oman’s entrepreneurs have demonstrated great initiative and come up with a number of solutions in response to the pandemic, leading to the establishment of the Technological Innovation Committee – which is chaired by Azza bint Sulaiman Al Ismailia, minister of technology and communications – to evaluate the proposed solutions. Having many innovative ideas presented in such a short period of time is somewhat unprecedented in this part of the world and is a reason to be confident in Oman’s offerings. Adoption by consumers is another positive outcome, as people who previously might not have used technology in this way are becoming more comfortable with digital solutions. For example, although people understand that technology can be helpful, in the past they have preferred shopping in brick-and-mortar stores to making their purchases online.
Which areas of the economy do you feel are most in need of further digitalisation, and has the current crisis served to accelerate this process?
AL MANDHARI: Technology has helped three sectors in particular during this period – the first of which is government services. In order to continue providing services during the pandemic, it has been essential to increase the number of those resources available online. The lesson here is that we need additional government services to be made available online. The crisis has revealed a widespread interest in expediting the digital transformation.
Retail is another sector that has been facilitated by technology during this period. Those businesses that were already providing online services were in a better position than those with only physical locations. Online stores have been very active and have taken advantage of the opportunity; these businesses have only been partially impacted.
Online education has also been aided by technology. There has been greater demand for educational platforms, which showed an increase in interaction and interest due to school closures. After the pandemic, I expect that there is going to be a huge incentive to shift to online education – with the help of the government. People are more ready than ever to accept technology in their lives. As technology and ICT providers, one of the biggest challenges we have encountered is how to convince business owners – whether a government entity or private entity – to make the transition from traditional legacy systems to automated technology business platforms. After the pandemic I think this will go more smoothly.
Moving forward, we should be prepared for the likelihood of a similar crisis. We should not wait for such an issue to arise before improving our online education systems, and we should maintain the practice of providing education partially online. From what we see with younger students, there is healthy interest in this type of education, which could be because they already enjoy playing games with this kind of technology. I think the greater challenge will be getting these platforms approved by the relevant decision-makers.
What measures need to be put in place to ensure that the ICT sector is able to successfully capitalise on the opportunities presented?
AL MANDHARI: First, the necessary infrastructure should be made available throughout the whole country, because the moment you decide to have online education, you are obliged to provide equity on network speed. The quality of network infrastructure has to be at the level where these services can be delivered everywhere, including in rural areas. To that end, the government has approved funding of roughly $4m per year for the next 10 years to Oman Broadband, the company that provides broadband capability throughout the country, as a subsidy for rural areas to be covered by satellite.
The second issue that must be addressed is affordability. Every family should have access to an equal number of tablets or devices as there are family members – an average of four or five – in order to have the same accessibility as their peers.
The third part of this is security. Throughout the pandemic we have seen a number of applications that do not provide the level of security that there should be in communication. This has an impact on users’ trust and how freely they feel they can use these platforms. This must be addressed.
To have a seamless digital transformation, we must first achieve an integrated framework. This will largely be determined by how well the authorities can structure the ownership of data across Oman. Right now, the digital platforms are in place, but we still need integration between them, along with data access and a privacy framework. In order for those systems to be used efficiently the government should seek to accelerate integration once the pandemic has been resolved.