East Timor: Connecting Civil Society

Creative broadcasting systems at the top of coconut trees (photo used with permission)

Creative broadcasting systems at the top of coconut trees (photo from FONGTIL IT Division)

Providing internet access to civil society has been a key priority of the few information and communication technology (ICT) initiatives in East Timor (Timor Leste). High prices, poor infrastructure, and a telecoms monopoly has meant that there is still a long way to go before digital techologies can have a more widespread positive impact for access to knowledge, employment and economic development.

A new regulatory environment

A Global Voices article from February last year presented a timeline with a look on the deep digital gap occurring in East Timor: “9 Years of Internet, still one ISP and a huge Digital Gap“. The story began:

East Timor has lived through long periods of occupation and has had to fight tragically for independence. The post referendum violence devastated social and communication infrastructures. When the country became the first new nation of the 21st century, it had almost no technological environment.

World Bank Internet access numbers from 2008 in East Timor (taken from Abel Pires da Silva paper)

World Bank Internet access numbers from 2008 in East Timor (taken from Abel Pires da Silva paper)

One year later, the ICT sector has slowly but positively evolved.
What appeared to represent one of the biggest hindrances, leading to very high prices of telecommunication services, is now expected to be softened. Tempo Semanal reports that a Timor Telecom monopoly agreement is finished:

In a meeting of the Council of Ministers last month (March) the monopoly in the TL telecommunications market was also ended just 8 years after the first government gave a 15 year exclusive right to Portugal Telecom and its friends. “This Wednesday (31/03) we approved a national telecommunications policy. This policy forsees the liberalisation of telecommunications. It also create conditions for us to prepare the law to accept companies that want to enter TL,” says Vice Prime Minister José Luis Guterres…

In a paper presented at a Transforming Timor Leste conference back in July 2009, Abel Pires da Silva, President of East Timor ICT Association (ICT TL), described the situation in East Timor as an “embryonic information society”, mainly due to what he claims to be a “limited understanding and recognition of how ICT can contribute to development shared amongst decision makers, regulators and public in general.”

A few East Timor initiatives highlighted below show the real possibilities of ICT for Development to add value, effectiveness and meaning.

ICT access for civil society

While the ICT landscape is still limited by the high prices of access to the internet, a few organisations have been working to assist with internet connections for non-profit organisations (NGOs).

Making Internet accessible for NGO Blind Union (photo used with permission)

FONGTIL IT Division: Making Internet accessible for NGO Blind Union

The East Timor NGO Forum (FONGTIL) is responsible for monitoring, coordination and training of more than 300 national NGOs in East Timor.

The IT division promotes capacity building by training NGO members around the country in use of computers and the internet. It has launched five IT centres for local NGOs in Oecusse, Same, Baucau, Viqueque and Dili.

Besides training and mainstream technical support, Fongtil's IT division also strives to provide affordable and alternative wifi internet access for civil society organizations in Dili as stated in the IT NGO Blog [id]:

Alternatif Antena Wireless NGO ETBU dengan Wajan Pemasak

Koneksi internet di Negara baru ini merupakan barang mewah, dimana untuk bisa akses internet di warnet saja dipatok satu jam pemakaian $2.00 USD. Ini merupakan harga rata-rata untuk warnet yang dapat kita temukan di kota Dili. Sedangkan koneksi internet di tempat-tempat penginapan dan Hotel rata-rata mematok harga $3-$6 per jam.

Untuk Civil Society
NGO di Timor-Leste sangat sulit untuk bisa membayar akses internet dengan harga yang telah disebutkan. Untuk itu NGO FORUM sebagai payung bagi NGO di Timor-Leste merasa perlu untuk membantu para NGO untuk bisa koneksi ke Internet. Saat ini FONGTIL sendiri terkoneksi ke Internet melalui INET under ISP Timor-Telecom sebuah perusahaan Sub ISP yang dimilik oleh orang Australia.(…)

Sedangkan NGO dan organisasi sosial di Timor-Leste tidak mampu untuk bisa membayar harga internet diatas, untuk itu FONGTIL melalui divisi IT berusaha untuk bisa membantu member NGOnya dengan cara mendirikan sebuah Base Station Sangat Sederhana di Kaikoli dengan alat apa adanya untuk bisa melayani Internet wireless ke member Fongtil yang ada di kota Dili.

Alternative Wireless Antenna NGOETBU with cooking Wok
Internet connections in this new country are a luxury, when internet access in a cafe is pegged at USD$2.00 for just one hour. This is the average price in the cafes in the city of Dili while internet connections in rented accommodation and hotels can cost an average of $3,00-$6,00 per hour.For NGOs in Timor-Leste it is very difficult to pay for internet access at the prices mentioned. Thus NGO Forum, as an umbrella for NGOs in Timor-Leste, feels it is necessary to help NGOs connect to the Internet. Currently FONGTIL itself is connected to the Internet via ISP INET Timor under a sub-Telecom company ISP held by Australians. (…)

While NGOs and social organizations in Timor-Leste can not afford to pay the prices above, FONGTIL through the IT division seeks to help member NGOs by establishing a very simple base station in Kaikoli with whatever tools that enable providing wireless Internet to FONGTIL members in the city of Dili.

Besides the enthusiasm, Guilherme Soares, who is responsible for the IT division of FONGTIL, says that there are still many problems with speed and strength of the signal for distribution and reports that the government could overcome the problem of the internet in the country, so that “hopefully NGOs can get a fair price for the internet”.

Technology.tl - The Info Timor enterprise has been developed to improve access to information technology in East Timor.

Technology.tl – The Info Timor enterprise has been developed to improve access to information technology in East Timor.

Info Timor is another not-for-profit social enterprise that focuses on using information communication technology to deliver skills development, education and employment while assisting in the reconstruction of the country. The project currently employs 20 people who work with a team of volunteers divided between two ICT resource centres in the district. Their work consists mainly of distribution of refurbished computers to schools, community centres, orphanages and government departments as well as training in ICT skills.

Looking towards the future, in May 2010 Kopernik, “an on-line store of innovative technologies designed for the developing world” will host an Appropriate Tech Fair in East Timor, hopefully opening the door for further awareness on technological solutions that may improve people's lives. For the moment, as long as internet costs are so prohibitive, it will be a while before ICT for development initiatives will become more widespread.

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