Mongolia: Shoring up technology gaps

The information and communications technology (ICT) sector has been boosted in recent months by measures to enhance local online content and implement e-bidding systems for investors. However, technological glitches during the elections in June have highlighted issues with internet coverage.

On June 22, the country took a step towards increasing Mongolian content on the internet with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers’ acceptance of its proposal for new internationalised country-code, top-level domains. This will allow Mongolia to use domain names that use Mongolian Cyrillic script rather than the Latin alphabet, similar to applications by countries that use other Cyrillic languages, or Arabic and Chinese characters.

A study between 2005 and 2009 by Intec, a domestic ICT consulting firm, found just 2535 websites with Mongolian content. The low figure contrasts with the 16% rise in internet users to 390,000 between 2006 and 2011, according to estimates by BuddeComm, a telecoms research firm. Broadband users increased from 3500 to 85,000 in the same period.

To improve connectivity in the country’s more remote areas, the government also plans to launch a communications satellite by 2015 with assistance from Japan. In March, Prime Minister S. Batbold signed a memorandum of understanding with Yukio Edano, the Japanese minister of economy, trade and industry that will include cooperation for technical studies on communications satellite systems and earth observatory satellites.

Meanwhile, an e-bidding system that will be used for that satellite and other government tenders, developed with support from the Korean International Cooperation Agency, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, was unveiled in May. The first official online tender under the new system was for office equipment for the Ministry of Finance, with local media estimating that some $2.61m will be saved per bidding process conducted online.

Despite the progress seen in this initiative, Mongolia was ranked 76th out of 190 countries in this year’s UN E-government Survey, a fall of 23 places on 2010. While the country scored well in its environmental index and was praised for linking social media website Facebook to government portals, it received a poor index ranking on the telecommunication infrastructure index.

The poor score relating to infrastructure comes despite the existence of some 21,000 km of fibre-optic connections, which now link more than half of all aimags (provinces) and 160 soums (districts). The government programme “One Home, One PC”, which provides low-cost computers to homes, is credited with helping nationwide PC penetration reach 60% by 2009. Additionally, there are also over 70 internet service providers.

However, the drop in ranking is largely due to internet access issues, which were blamed for delays in the vote count following the parliamentary elections on June 28, which saw the opposition Democratic Party edge out Mongolia’s ruling party.
To emphasise its commitment to improving e-government services, in April the cabinet approved an E-governance Action Plan for 2016. Without providing further details, officials have said that the action plan will benefit from the approval of a law on e-signatures in November 2012, meaning the country can move forward with the creation of a legal environment for developing bills on ensuring IT security.

In a separate sign of progress, the country performed well in the Networked Readiness Index 2011-12, released by the World Economic Forum in April. Achieving 63rd place out of the 143 counties surveyed – a significant rise on its position the previous year – the country scored well in its business and innovation environment (69th), but poorly on its political and regulatory environment (105th). While government and business usage ranked at 44th and 84th respectively, individual usage of the internet ranked just 101st.

“In the future, our objective is to enable individuals, households and entrepreneurs to access social services electronically through high-speed broadband. To accomplish this, the sector’s stakeholders need to invest in building infrastructure, while the state must regulate the market appropriately,” said J. Bat-Erdene, the chairman of the Information, Communication, Technology and Post Authority.

While the government has worked hard to build fibre-optic links and its progress on e-governance is to be lauded, more must be done to encourage the private sector to improve ICT infrastructure so the sector can play its expected role in the country’s economic growth.

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