27 FEBRUARY 2002

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Government calling on your mobile

Vodafone Sales Administration Manager Malcolm A. Mallia tells KURT SANSONE how SMS-crazy Malta can benefit from m-government.

Over the past year we have been hearing about the gradual implementation of e-government, but all of a sudden the m-government concept was born and it took everyone by surprise. How did this happen?

Our research and development department has been developing applications that could be used to deliver services over a mobile network. The applications were intended for a working world that is increasingly becoming mobile. However, we realised that they could also be used to deliver government services as well.

Keeping in mind government’s resolve to implement e-government along with the high mobile phone penetration rate, which is much higher than the penetration of computers, we decided to offer the applications to government. We approached government with our idea and it was taken up immediately.

I must add that Austin Gatt’s ministry was extremely receptive of our idea. This project is a good example of how a public-private partnership scheme should work. There was professionalism on both sides and in just six months we went from initial discussions to concept launch, which is quite an achievement.

Will m-government compete with e-government?

No, they are complimentary. The mobile phone is easy and cheap to use and according to the Public Perceptions Survey conducted recently by the e-Malta Commission, the public has a greater willingness to use a mobile phone rather than a computer. But a mobile phone has its obvious limitations.

What type of services is m-government suited for?

Not all government department services can be offered on a mobile phone but, in conjunction with e-government, m-government works brilliantly. For example, a person looking for a job can, via the e-government concept, go to the ETC web site and register his or her details online. Then, utilising the m-government concept, the individual can be notified via SMS each time the ETC has a vacancy that fits the particular profile entered by the individual. The same concept can be applied to public libraries, where individuals can be notified via SMS when a particular book is available at the library. M-government compliments the e-government project.

What other services can m-government provide?

Another important service concerns child absenteeism from schools. The m-government concept provides a very good solution in this modern age in which both parents would probably be at work and in some cases with no direct access to a fixed phone line. Once attendance sheets are done the headmaster can notify both parents via an SMS message that their child is not present at school.

Services such as those offered by the public registry for the issuing of birth, marriage and death certificates require a payment. Does m-government cater for such services?

The system developed allows people to transact without using their credit card. The payment is similar to the system already utilised by Vodafone customers when they download MTV Ringing Tones. The amount is deducted automatically from the mobile phone user’s account.

What platform will m-government use to communicate with clients?

All services being developed are SMS-based. Mobile phone users are SMS-crazy therefore we started with SMS as an initial platform. It is instant, personal, fast, cheap and easy to use.

M-government is a culture change rather than anything else, so we based our applications on current customer patterns. Over a one-year period the popularity of SMS has shot up immensely and SMS is a good starting point to get people used to m-government.

The biggest limitation of SMS is the number of characters allowed per message but eventually services could also be offered via alternative technologies.

How successful do you think m-government will be with the general public?

The only services, both on mobile and Internet, which people are sceptical of are those involving a form of payment. The SMS-based type of payment over a mobile phone involves no element of risk or credit card fraud, making it easier and more secure for people to use their phone for other things than just voice communications. I am confident that people will gradually adapt to m-government given the convenience such a system can provide.

Did government departments have any role in developing the system and what has been their feedback?

Vodafone creates the basic applications, which then have to be tailored to the particular needs of the departments. It was our intention from the outset to make government departments feel they are the owners of the service. Basically, Vodafone developed the application but the departments are developing the services.

The feedback from government departments has been very good. During the meetings we are having, the department employees are coming up with suggestions and ideas on how to improve the concept. We anticipate that over the next year the first batch of services will be rolled-out.

Will all mobile phone users be able to utilise m-government services?

There are some services that will be accessible to all mobile phone users irrespective of who their provider is, but some services will be exclusive to Vodafone clients. The intention is to have these services accessible by everyone but this depends on the working agreements reached between the two mobile phone operators and the elimination of certain technical difficulties.

Which services can the public expect to see rolling out over the months to come?

On our part around 95 per cent of the development is ready, but it is government’s role to set the agenda and prioritise which services start operating first. I would not want to jump the gun. Government owns the service and Vodafone is the carrier and provider of the service.

Is private industry receptive to the concept of delivering services via a mobile phone?

Vodafone pumps a lot of investment in its research and development department in order to keep up to date with developments, as well as satisfying customer demands. We started developing these applications with both government and private industry in mind and the applications can be tailored to the client’s particular needs and requests.

I am confident that private industry will take up the idea, especially now that government has taken the first step. The mobile phone is radically changing how we communicate and new services such as m-government will slowly bring about a change of culture and lifestyle. The m-government concept is an excellent platform to show private industry how the mobile phone can be used to deliver services effectively.

Is m-government a symptom of the trend by both mobile phone companies to branch out into value added services?

It definitely is. We are closely reaching market saturation in mobile phone penetration and the next logical step for us is to offer services other than voice. M-government is one avenue of the sort.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt