Last Updated: Friday, 4 January 2008, 15:40 GMT
Mauritian cyber island dream
Richard Taylor
By Richard Taylor
Editor, BBC Click

I was as surprised as the next holidaymaker to learn that Mauritius is striving to become the world's first fully-fledged cyber island.

Cyber Tower
The 12-storey Cyber Tower dominates the Cybercity

But aspiring it is - and for a country which has built its wealth largely on tourism and sugar cane, it is a radical change of direction.

The kind of silicon found here is more of the sand variety than the highly-refined elements which make up the building blocks of your PC. Nevertheless, Mauritius does have its own Silicon Valley - of a sort.

In the shadow of history lies what Mauritius sees as the key to its future.

The Cybercity is very much a work in progress. But for the past four years the 12-storey Cyber Tower has been home to a cluster of tech-oriented companies - in one corner software developers, in another remote data storage facilities for companies and even countries making sure their data is in safe hands.

As you might imagine, Mauritius is not exactly public enemy number one for cyber terrorists.

Data transmission

If the Cybercity is the physical embodiment of the cyber island vision, its soul lies in the idea of coast-to-coast connectivity.

Its internet gateway to the rest of the world comes primarily in the form of a fibre optic cable, which - though reliable - is slow; an upgrade due this year should improve matters.

On the island itself, though, the future lies in getting data over the air.

"We have full, island-wide coverage with 3G," explained Shyam Roy, who for the past two decades has been at the helm of Emtel, an outfit which launched the first cellphone network in the southern hemisphere.

Wimax aerial

More recently it gave Mauritius the first 3G network in Africa - making possible services like streaming mobile TV and remote video camera surveillance. Today it is moving beyond 3G to the even higher speed HSDPA.

"I would say 98% of the population are covered," Mr Roy says.

"The rest are maybe in valleys and mountains where they might not need the cover.

"In terms of HSDPA, we have around one third of the country covered now. But we will expand as soon as possible, probably to about three quarters of the island. The rest might not necessarily need HSDPA right now."

Also available is a wireless solution which needs no mobile or even landline. You can buy a modem which uses the emerging Wimax technology.

It plugs straight into your PC and receives its signal from a Wimax base station a couple of kilometres away.

Wimax has been described as "wi-fi on steroids", with hotspots often spanning several kilometres.

Currently three quarters of the island is blanketed in these hotspots - and the guys behind the service are eyeing up major expansion.

"Mauritius is actually a very challenging environment for wireless technologies because it has mountains, plateaux, very challenging terrain," explained Alin Jayant, CEO of Nomad Networks.

"The point is that if it's able to work in Mauritius - and it is - then we're going to be able to take it to any other environment easily."

Hi-tech skills

Of course it is no good offering services to 1.2 million people ill-equipped to take advantage of them.

Youngsters are now the firm target of a five-year plan at the end of which the government aims to have computer literacy sky-rocketing. And not just for the privileged few.

Two so-called cyber caravans have been doing the rounds in Mauritius for the past few years. The cyber caravan is essentially a converted coach with a dozen or so connected PCs, and it is lending a new twist to the idea of the mobile internet.

Some people were even saying that I was putting up a white elephant that was going to be a burden to the economy of the country and all that. I didn't listen to all this.
President Anerood Jugnauth

Its main aim is to get the disenfranchised online - from housewives to agricultural labourers who are experiencing technology often for the first time.

"Learning how to e-mail and use basic applications are indispensable in today's world," one lady told me.

Of course that is true, but many of those emerging with IT skills end up using them in a limited capacity.

Mirroring their English-language counterparts in India, francophone call centres are now big business here. I visited one with a staff of 5,000, in the main giving French customers the impression they are receiving service from Marseille rather than Mauritius.

It might be a job in IT but it is far cry from the high-end IT skills required, say, of software engineers.

Nevertheless, it is progress. And for the prime minister-turned-president who laid the foundations of the Cybercity and indeed the whole cyber island concept, it is enough to silence the cynics.

"There was lots of criticism; that it was not going to help Mauritius, that it was a waste of time," said Anerood Jugnauth, President of Mauritius.

"Some people were even saying that I was putting up a white elephant that was going to be a burden to the economy of the country and all that. I didn't listen to all this.

"I had my own mind. And of course in government I convinced them that we should go forward, and everybody agreed. And now it's growing and we can make a cyber island of Mauritius."

Country profile: Mauritius
27 Sep 07 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Mauritius
27 Sep 07 |  Country profiles

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