National information infrastructure


Assessment of the Institutional structures for coordination and implementation

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Assessment of the Institutional structures for coordination and implementation


NCB was tasked by the IT2000 Report to provide overall coordination of the implementation of the NII vision. With the benefits of hindsight, it can be said that the report has initially underestimated the technological complexity of what its NII vision called for, and at the same over-estimated the potential market demand for broadband network services. The core capabilities that NCB has established over the years through its civil service computerization projects have been based primarily on computer technologies and applications, whereas the task of designing and building a broadband NII as envisaged require new core competencies in telecommunications technologies and applications.

Besides telecommunications, NCB also needed to contend with a number of other major stake-holders in the new information economy. These include broadcasting and other publishing media under the Ministry of Information & Arts (in relation to content), education and training under the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Labor (also in relation to content), trades, financial services and new information services industry under the Ministry of Trades & Industry (in relation to electronic commerce and investment promotion), and Ministry of Law (in relation to IPR laws related to new forms of information goods and network transactions). Unlike the earlier case of NITP implementation, where most of the policy issues related to NCB's computerization promotion efforts were relatively uncontroversial and involved little overlap with the jurisdiction of other ministries, the changes proposed under the IT2000 Vision calls for potentially significant policy change on the part of these other ministries and hence requires extensive policy coordination. Although there has been genuine "buy-in" to the IT2000 Vision by all the Ministries concerned, and a high level policy coordinating mechanism in the form of NITC is available, the process of working out policy coordination at the level of project implementation can be protracted. Although NCB has set up an NII Policy Research group to analyze policy issues and propose policy options to facilitate the implementation of the IT2000 Vision, it is in practice limited by its lack of expertise in many of the policy areas that it has to begin to grapple with, and the need to consult and involve other government agencies calls for the development of new policy coordination skills.

Policies related to the media industries are invariably among the most politically sensitive in most countries. In the case of Singapore, the high commitment to the communitarian ideology by the political leadership means that policy formulation and implementation pertaining to information are even more complex. Thus, although the widespread diffusion of internet usage would have been seen as desirable from the perspective of promoting IT culture, electronic commerce and new information services industries, it was not until the Minister of Information and the Arts announced a clear policy decision to encourage internet usage that NCB could aggressively champion internet-related developments. Similarly, the participation of the Ministry of Education provided the impetus to accelerate the development of the STW project. Finally, competition policies in the telecoms market were made by the TAS under the Min. of Communications, while the policy issue of whether there should be one or two carrier networks for broadband information transmission was probably made at the highest political level.

While the original IT2000 Vision has clearly anticipated the global shift towards network applications and digitized contents, the pace of change and the specific forms that it took nonetheless caught government planners and even industry leaders in the advanced countries by surprise. For example, the surge in popularity of internet WWW, and the concomitant emerging paradigm of "the Network is the Computer", were clearly not anticipated three years ago. At the same time, the highly tauted High Definition TV (HDTV) revolution in the late 1980s became an embarrassment to the Japanese promoters by mid-1990s, while the promise of mass market demand for "video-on-demand" (VOD) has ebbed and subsided with surprising speed as the sobering results of a number of on-going trials are emerging in the US.

Technological platforms and integration strategies have become even more fluid than 3 years ago when the IT2000 plan first contemplated the idea of a broadband integrated information network. Mobile communications and digital satellite transmissions are emerging as potentially viable alternative means of providing multimedia local access even while cable TV battles with telecom's fibre-optics and ADSL-rejuvenated copper wires for the "last mile". In terms of switching technologies, while ATM has made significant progress, widespread deployment remains elusive in the near term. Narrow ISDN, which was written off in the early 1990s as out-of-date, may yet be revived as internet (and perhaps personal videoconferencing) demand for higher bandwidth continues to surge. Finally, the fear of monopoly dominance by Microsoft operating systems is being replaced by new optimism towards the emergence of platform-independent network programming technologies like Java.

In the face of such massive technological and business market fluidities, no clear directions had emerged as to what applications and technology platforms would drive broadband services. Instead, the rise of internet has given greater urgency to developing applications that can be deployed now on top of existing infrastructures and the TCP/IP protocols. Thus, paradoxically, while the pervasive network and computing envisioned by IT2000 have come sooner than anticipated, but the expected deployment on broadband networks has receded further into the future.

Although the original IT2000 plan envisions deployment of a wide range of NII services on broadband networks, these turns of events in subsequent years clearly suggest that a re-prioritization of NII services to be deployed is needed. In particular, while the dual conduit policy will ensure universal access to broadband services by the year 2000, the actual deployment of specific broadband network services cannot be technology-driven, but must await the development of sufficient market demand. However, market demand for broadband services are unlikely to emerge in a full-blown fashion; instead, they are more likely to be stimulated by, and evolved from, applications deployed earlier.

It is to the credit of NCB that it grasped the new realities quickly and concentrated its implementation efforts instead on specific applications-oriented developments that are deployable in the near term even without a fully functional broadband network infrastructures. The significant re-engineering of NCB's organizational structure and mission statement reflects this new reality. It is also an indication of the preparedness of the government leadership to make significant organizational changes to key institutions in order to deal with new challenges. Given the paradigm shift towards networks and contents already identified in the IT2000 Vision Plan, it is inevitable that the Ministry of Communications and Ministry of Information and the Arts have to play larger roles in the subsequent implementation of the plan. Despite initial doubts by foreign observers, both Ministries have moved with surprising speed towards putting in place the framework and structure for NII deployment. In particular, the dual conduit policy and commitment to fibre-deployment will ensure that Singapore will have universal access (and most likely, user choice of the last mile conduit) by the year 2000. While it is a moot point whether the NII Vision has helped galvanized the necessary government policy decisions, the policy framework that has been put in place by the end of 1995 is clearly much more coherent than was the case prior to the articulation of the vision.





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