A long way to go for East Timor telecoms, IT

For a country which only became formally independent on Sunday at midnight, East Timor has a surprisingly long Internet and telecommunication history. Two years before it became a sovereign country, it came under attack as a virtual country.

In 1999, while still under the control of Indonesia, East Timor had been granted its own .tp country-code top-level Internet domain, and had set up a Web site promoting pro-independence views, which for both practical and political reasons was hosted by a small company in Dublin.

In February 1999, the site was hacked into and the “virtual country” briefly driven offline. The operators of the site accused Indonesian authorities of hacking the East Timor Project site, which, if true, marked an incidence of cyberwar against a state which did not even exist.

In August that year, armed groups hostile to East Timorese independence did more direct damage to the country’s telecommunication industry by destroying virtually all the visible infrastructure before withdrawing over the border to Indonesian-held West Timor.

The first rebuilding of telecommunication infrastructure was carried out in late 1999 to support the operations of Interfet (International Force East Timor) peacekeeping forces, led by the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

Australia’s largest carrier Telstra Corp. Ltd. was called in to repair the local exchange which had been burnt and vandalized before the arrival of Interfet and to fix the damaged copper cable network. Telstra also installed an international exchange, which for the first time gave East Timor its own country access code, and put in 2,500 land lines. Telstra also built a GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) mobile phone network covering the main centers of Dili and Baucau.

A satellite-based Internet gateway was built to provide e-mail and Web access.

Interfet handed over to the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (Untaet) which in turn has now handed over to a new civilian East Timor government. The telecommunication services, still run by Telstra, have been extended for public use.

The government now plans to create a new permanent carrier for the country, with a contract for further development of East Timor’s telecommunications to be awarded within a few months.

Telstra’s main focus was to support the peacekeeping efforts of ADF and Interfet and the company will not be bidding for the contract, according to Telstra International spokeswoman Karen Gomez.

“We will work with the new carrier to ensure a smooth transition and will be assisting where we can,” said Gomez. “It will be a point of discussion whether we hand over the equipment to the new carrier or whether they want to use their own equipment.”

The government has been quick to set out a vision for the future use of information and communication technology (ICT) among the 800,000 population.

“The East Timor Transitional Administration (the government) recognizes that the Internet is becoming a powerful tool of communication. It can have great value in terms of education, information, and communication. The community should be encouraged to learn of the possibilities which the Internet offers, and to make maximum use of it,” the government notes on its Web site.

Achieving the vision will not be easy. East Timor is, the United Nations estimates, the poorest country in Asia, well behind places such as Laos, Nepal, Cambodia, Bangladesh, with half the population earning less than US$1 per day. The majority of the adult population is illiterate, and only about one-quarter of the country’s villages have electricity.

The country generates little income, and relies on aid expected to amount to US$440 million over the next three years before revenue from an offshore gas field begins to arrive.

ICT development, while considered important, may have to come after more basic needs as food, shelter, health and education, according to the government’s development plan.

“Currently East Timor needs virtually everything – infrastructure, technology, training, capital and access to markets,” it said.

And while the government’s Information Technology Post and Telecommunications (ITPT) division is encouraging companies to help provide a competitive ISP (Internet service provider) market, it is not promising quick returns for investors.

“Potential ISPs should be aware that in East Timor only a small number of the population has, at present, access to computers,” the government said in its plan. “Moreover their computer skills are very low. Although this is likely to change quite rapidly in the future it is not expected that the development will be immediate.”