Mauritius aims to be 1st `cyber-island’

This tropical island off the east coast of Africa is best-known for its white-sand beaches, its designer clothing outlets and its spicy curries.

But tiny Mauritius is about to stake a new claim to fame. By year’s end, or soon afterward, it is expected to become the world’s first nation with coast-to-coast wireless Internet coverage, the first country to become one big “hot spot.”

Mauritius Wireless Island

“If there’s anyone who can do it, it’s us,” said Rizwan Rahim, the head of ADB Networks, the company installing the wireless radio network across the 40-mile-long island. “It’s a small place, so for a wireless network it’s manageable. For us, it’s a test. If it’s successful here, we can island-hop to [mainland] Africa.”

Like many African nations, this modest country has struggled economically as the industries that underlie its economy–particularly sugar production and textile manufacturing–have run into tough global competition and declining prices. Looking for alternatives, the government has settled on a new and ambitious vision: Turning sleepy Mauritius with its endless sugar cane fields and tourist beaches into a high-tech computer and telecommunications center.

“It is our vision to transform Mauritius into a cyber-island,” said Deelchand Jeeha, the country’s minister of information technology and telecommunications, in a speech last year. The nation, he said, “is confident in the potential of [the industry] as an engine of growth which can generate jobs and wealth creation.”

Remote Mauritius is in many respects well-placed to win the high-tech investment it wants. An undersea broadband fiber-optic cable, completed three years ago, gives the island fast and reliable phone and Internet links with the rest of Africa and with Europe, India and Malaysia. Many of the country’s 1.2 million people–a mix of French, Indian, Chinese and African descendants–are bilingual or trilingual, speaking French, English and either Chinese or Hindi. The country is democratic, peaceful and stable.

In Ebene, just south of Port Louis, the capital, the government has built the first of three planned high-tech parks. It also has stepped up training programs to turn out tech-savvy workers and has rewritten its business rules in an effort to create an attractive investment climate. The changes are aimed at luring call centers, remote data backup facilities for companies worried about terrorist attacks and, eventually, software development companies.

`It’s the future’

The government’s efforts have brought in investment by players like Microsoft, Oracle, Accenture and India’s Infosys Technologies and created about 2,000 jobs in the past two years.

“It’s the future,” said Satyam Gutty, a taxi driver in Port Louis whose daughter just graduated with a university degree in information technology. “It’s a big chance for Mauritius.”

That’s evident at evening computer courses set up around the country by the private National Productivity and Competitiveness Council. Even in rural areas, housewives, businessmen, schoolchildren and agricultural laborers are getting their first chance to use computers, part of the government’s aim of making its entire society computer-literate.

“It’s something extraordinary to see people with rough hands from manual labor holding the mouse,” said Oomme Narod, a senior analyst with the council. So far, 37,000 people have been trained in computer basics, she said.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Mauritius is suddenly flush with skilled high-tech workers. Many of those emerging from information technology training courses are prepared to work as call center operators–but not software engineers.

Despite the government’s effort to provide an inviting investment climate, regulation also remains a problem. Rahim, who applied for a license for his wireless Nomad Internet network last December, got approval only three weeks ago, three months later than expected.

The main problem, he and others say, is that the government holds a substantial share in Mauritius Telecom, the island’s only fixed-line telephone operator, as well as one of its Internet providers and the company that controls the submarine fiber-optic cable that provides all of the country’s phone and Internet bandwidth.

Because the government makes so much money from the company and its cable, it has been reluctant to open the market to competitors that might reduce Telecom’s profits, even though the country’s National Telecommunications Policy, passed in 2004, calls for “positive discrimination” by regulators in favor of start-up companies facing off against established firms like Telecom.

Threat from competitors

The government “wants to create a cyber-island but they haven’t changed their regulation and infrastructure enough to create the climate,” Rahim said. If Mauritius doesn’t act quickly, he warned, it may well see its cyber-island idea stolen by competitor countries.

“There are policy decisions that still need to be taken,” agreed Narod, of the competitiveness council. Right now, “there is improvement, but at a slow pace.”

Still, Mauritius’ courts have shown signs of holding the government to its competitiveness policies, which may ease the way for future investors.

“If any investor had called me three months ago and asked about investing, I would have told them to go somewhere else,” Rahim said. Now, he said, “you have to come in with open eyes and an African mentality of patience, but if you persevere you can get results.”

From his office window in Mauritius’ new Cybertower–a sleek blue glass and gray stone tower that is the heart of the country’s first high-tech park–Rahim can point out one of five new radio transmission antennas his company has installed in the last month perched beside a Hindu temple on a nearby green mountainside.

The antennas now beam his wireless Internet service over about 60 percent of the island and within range of 70 percent of its population. Business contracts for the service went on sale two weeks ago; a residential launch has been delayed only because national elections in July have eaten up all the advertising space in local media.

By year’s end, he said, he hopes to have enough antennas up to cover 90 percent of the mountainous island. Getting to every last corner, he said, might take a little longer.

“We have so many sugar cane fields,” he lamented, tracing the island’s outline on a map.

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