Bridging the digital divide
May 26, 2006
Bridging the digital divide

Information and communications technology (ICT) is a key tool in helping small countries develop more rapidly. It offers huge potential to empower people in less developed countries (LDC) and help disadvantaged communities overcome development obstacles. According to Teresa Peters, executive director, an understanding of grassroots realities, pooling of resources, and a favourable regulatory system are among the many elements necessary in an effective approach to the digital divide.

In SEARCHLIGHT Business this month we meet one on one with Charles Chen, one of California’s leading IT specialists with extensive experience in the IT sector in both the USA and South East Asia.{{more}}

Charles is a graduate of the University of California Los Angeles, (UCLA). he functions as an IT specialist/engineer and is also a certified Cisco CCNP, Microsoft MCSE, CompTIA A+, Siebel, Alcatel, and 3Com VoIP expert.

He is the chief technology officer of Lightswitch Media LLC, a real estate call centre in Los Angeles, and is the President of Reliant Enterprise LLC, an international wholesale telephone company based in Los Angeles, California.

Q: There is now growing evidence of the role that ICT (information and communication technologies) can play in enhancing development, particularly UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). What kind of programmes can the local National Institute of Technology (NIT) put in place to facilitate the nation-wide use of ICTs, in ensuring that the benefits of new technologies, information and communication technologies are available to all?

A: Infrastructure improvements, education, and accessibility. These are the three things the NIT should focus on.

Working with private sector organisations, NIT should improve the nation’s IT infrastructure and, at the minimum, able to link all the schools together as one large network. Education collaborations via online classes, computerbased training, and remote education courses are just a few demonstrations on the advantage of networking and linking the schools together.

NIT should be the facility to teach the teachers. As the knowledge of the instructors improved from NIT’s course offerings, they can then transfer the knowledge to the students of the younger generations.

NIT, along with other government agencies, should provide ease of accessibility to computers and Internet. I have seen the NIT begin to implement and progress in this direction and I am quite please with the progress. The accessibility of technology is especially important to towns in the Grenadines and areas further away from Kingstown, where public access to the Internet may be difficult or expensive. At the minimum, every public library should provide free computer usage and access to the Internet, along with other government agencies and buildings.

We have addressed the need of the younger generation on utilizing new technologies. But we should not forget the current generation, who may fear new technologies due to unfamiliarity. NIT should, working with local colleges and schools, offer free classes to adults on basic computer trainings.

Q: Recently a new thrust has been placed on the implementation of a national export strategy through Public-Private Partnership initiatives. From your visit to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, do you see the potential market for more overseas IT investment, and in what areas?

A: I believe there is excellent potential here. There are several market areas in which SVG would be attractive to overseas IT investment. One area is the growing need of outsourced call centres from North America and Europe.

Another growing need is outsourced IT network engineering. Countries like India and Russia have dominated the outsourced computer programming market. Similar to India’s strong outsourced computer programming industry, SVG can explore the possibility of outsourcing their network engineering and other IT specialties.

The NIT is already on the right track in developing more educated and capable IT professionals. St Vincent, with efficient and advance IT infrastructure, can position itself as an important trade, e-commerce, and technology for other Caribbean nations lacking in mature IT infrastructure in marketing and exporting their goods.

Banking and data processing is another industry which SVG can see substantial IT investment. This industry seeks honest and intelligent staff who can work in complex, high-intensity type of duties. St Vincent and the Grenadines provide a unique blend of both.

Q: What can St. Vincent and the Grenadines add to its local IT sector to assist or improve its export development?

A: There are four areas that need to be addressed.

(1) [LAN (Local Area Network) Network Engineers] There is a need to improve network infrastructure to modernize companies’ local area network. This provides efficiency and better utilization of manpower.

(2) [Web developers] There is a need for web-based programmers. When it comes to export development, no one is going to know you exist unless you have a branch office in the destination country or you exist on the internet. A better exposure to the outside world via internet can bring in significant sales lead from other countries. And websites and internet marketing is the most cost effective way of export marketing.

(3) [SQL Database developers] In the modern world most tasks are paperless. In most enterprises environment, inventory, sales, accounting, and other B2B (business to business) interactions are all done electronically. Since every business is unique in their own way, there would be a need for database programmers to implement an in-house database and software to keep track and effectively run a business in a paperless world.

(4) [Telecommunication engineers] With the maturity of VoIP (voice over IP) and integration of hybrid systems which binds traditional PBX phone switch with modern VoIP, larger enterprises would need to address the need to have local telecom engineers available to fulfill their communication needs. Although most of us communicate via email or instant messenger, there is still a need to communicate via telephone. It is not the responsibility of the local phone company to fix the internal telecommunication needs inside a corporate enterprise, and it would not make financial sense to fly an engineer from the USA to fix an internal telephone extension. As the export industry grows, so would the size of the company, and the increase needs and dependency on telecommunication engineers.

Q: How can this country utilize its limited IT resources to help local IT experts better develop their skills in the information technology sector?

A: Work smarter, not harder. First of all, I believe there needs to be a higher urgency to train more people into the IT industry locally. As the country enters into the digital world, there would be a need to address the growing needs for more IT professionals.

Lastly, the NIT should purchase a greater variety of equipment for their training lab. It is not how many times an IT professional can program the same type of device; it is how many types of equipment the IT professional is exposed to. With more types of equipment, the NIT can develop a more flexible and knowledgeable IT professional.