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WITSA moves from strength to strength

Harris N. Miller talks to InterComms about how the World Information Technology and Services Alliance (WITSA) is developing.

Q: Why do you believe WITSA is so important?
A: WITSA is important because it is the only organisation that brings together the IT industry leadership from around the world on a regular basis. They come together to discuss common issues that cut across national lines. These include spreading new technology, collaboration on issues that are by their very nature global, such as cyber security, and public policy issues. The policy elements cover areas such as free trade and improving opportunities in the global market place.

Q: How do you measure that success – a metric if you like?
A: We have different metrics for success. One of them is growing the number of nations participating in WITSA. We have done a great job in that area but we are not anywhere near where we hope to be ultimately. We had 22 members eight years ago when I started, We added three more members: Senegal, Sri Lanka and Russia, at our WITSA meeting in November 2003 in Hanoi, taking us up to 53 and there will probably be 8-10 that are fairly close in the queue over the next year. That means that we should soon have 60 members so we are creating a broader network – the more individuals and associations you have participating the more powerful the organisation is.

In the IT policy areas we look for particular programmes and areas where we have been successful. In Y2K we were successful in setting up a global network helping to alert people around the world to the issues. We helped establish what is known as the International Y2K Cooperation Center. In issues of Cyber security we held the first global conference two years ago and WITSA has continued to work around the world to raise awareness and share information and best practice. In terms of spreading opportunities we have been successful in helping to strengthen and create IT associations in some developing economies that frankly need our assistance, at least initially, to get established.

Q: What is the value of the World Congress to participants and the host country?
A: In terms of attendance it is a phenomenal opportunity to bring together global IT leaders. It is not a trade show with vendors, this is the executive leadership of the leading IT companies coming together with the political leadership and we usually have 1500-1800 people coming to the event. They tend to be very senior management; they spend their day together discussing the current and future business and policy challenges. I think it is a great opportunity to strengthen the worldwide community of IT companies as well as offering very specific business development opportunities. For the host organisation it is an incredible opportunity to show their locality as a city, region or country focused on IT. If you think about what economic development officials do, which is convince companies and learn about their reasons to move there. Think about what it would cost to go around the world – the flight costs alone – to meet with 1500 or 1800 people who are senior executives in their country and tell them about their local area. For example, in Athens whilst hosting the 2004 World Congress there will be many people coming to Greece and it is a great opportunity for the Greek government and Greek business community to outline the benefits of doing business in Greece. The EU is also supporting it and it allows Europe to showcase its leadership as an IT region of the world.

Q: What are the main areas in which WITSA expects progress over the next 12 months?
A: We are very excited about the programme we have undertaken with the US Agency for International Development – starting late last year – to do a better job of creating and strengthening IT organisations in developing countries. We believe the formation of an IT association in a country is a positive sign of many things. They are going to hit a critical mass of IT companies in that country, which are mature enough to understand the value of working together. Secondly, it gives you a critical mass of companies that can articulate to their own governments, polices and programmes that will make the industry even stronger. Similarly they can oppose policies that might be inappropriate.

We are currently faced with efforts by some international organisations to become more involved in the regulation of the Internet. We have seen the ITU and at least some elements of the UN involved, although it is not a fixed policy. We do not believe this involvement or regulation is in fact providing a helping hand, but is in most cases an obstacle to the growth of the Internet and information technology. We do not want to get into a confrontation with the ITU or other international bodies but we need to send a message of “thanks but no thanks”. We are going to have to combat this tendency very actively.

Q: The issue of bridging the Digital Divide is one that WITSA has been closely associated with. Is the gap narrowing?
A: Our most important objective is spreading membership throughout the world. The original 22 members of WITSA were primarily from the developed world. Developing economies were not part of this and too often it seemed that the IT world was owned, operated and managed in the developed economies and then lightly distributed to the developing world. Our message has been that this is wrong.

The situation might be better looked at as not so much a digital divide as a digital opportunity. At the end of the day one third of the world’s population lives in two developing countries – China and India. The US, Western Europe and Japan combined, are only about 15% of the world’s population.

We have to figure out how to have polices and approaches that will spread the digital economy around the world. Some of these approaches are policy issues like telecommunications competition. If you create obstacles to competitive forces you will not bring down prices and encourage innovation. If you develop greater competition as a government policy, you are going to have a dramatic drop in prices and increased availability of telecommunications. We will then get to a point where people around the world will have access to the Internet. We have demonstrated that countries like China and India are the fastest growing markets in the world for new take up of cellular communications, adding 40-50 million new users each year. In the bad old days of monopolistic communications that would not have happened.

The Internet brings telemedicine to provide people in remote rural areas with access to medical advances that they would not have had before. It’s the same with e-learning. New technology enables business learning and huge on-line libraries. For many countries the reason they do not stock their libraries very well is theft. If you have books online people cannot steal them. That becomes a great equaliser and avenue of opportunity.

Q: Is the liberalisation and regulation argument entirely won?
A: The battle is never over. The monopolists are always going to try to maintain their monopoly. Those organisations tend to have a lot of political power in their own countries because they are often part of the government and the party systems. It does really take concerted efforts by the IT industry, enlightened politicians and ultimately by the consumer. They are the ones who have to speak up. Not every country in the world is a democracy, but even in countries that are not democracies these groups can find ways of making their feelings known. Even in the US we are starting to get it. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has now ruled that as of 1 November 2003, you can have wireless portability of your telephone number and can port your home telephone number to your cell phone.

Q: The IT industry has experienced a difficult time over the past few years. How has that impacted on how WITSA operates?
A: We are already a fairly “bare bones” organisation – we only have 2.5 staff – so our business model is to have a streamlined and minimal organisation.

We have dues that each association pays, based on the size of the IT industry in their own country. Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) pays the largest dues, with Japan paying the second largest amount. Our second source of revenue comes from any profits made from our events. Thirdly, we have special publications and special grant programmes. The ITAA contributes a lot of my time and also that of some other staff.

Additionally, we have the work of each of the individual IT associations that contribute to WITSA. We have been undertaking projects in East African countries and we have had the head of the South African Association participate in a number of those meetings. He is not officially on the WITSA payroll but his contribution to it is obviously valued.

Q: Would it be better to describe WITSA as a non-governmental organisation (NGO)?
A: You can describe WITSA however you want to as long as we are influential and effective!

For more information:
Please contact: Anders Halvorsen, mailto:ahalvorsen@itaa.org
Or visit: http://www.witsa.org

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