Chapter 9
A national information infrastructure
From LAN and WAN to Nll

Compared with most other countries in South East Asia, Vietnam has a weak economic infrastructure. However, the government is determined to substan- tially improve transportation of all kinds, communications and other infras- tructure within a medium-term perspective. By using modern information technology, significant improvements can be attained even within a short period of time. While the technical capacity of telecommunications equipment is being improved, the general price levels for the same equipment is coming down. To the benefit of the industrial and other professional users the country's telecommunications are now being developed with sizable re- sources, but much remains before an international technical standard is reached.

For a developing country like Vietnam it may prove to be relatively inexpensive to attain high standards in its national telecom system. However, the improvements can easily be offset, if an ineffective or otherwise inappro- priate administrative structure will govern the telecom sector. Also, even if prices of telecom and related computer equipment are falling, the technical and economic lifetime of this equipment is becoming shorter.

Not just in the most highly-industrialized countries, but also in the countries of South East Asia, industrial and other telecommunications users would have a stake in the construction of a National Information Infrastructure (NII), which would include electronic communications networks and databases, computers with modems, automatic switches, etc. (1) Even in its early phase of development, such an information infrastructure would put vast amounts of information at the users' disposal. This infrastruc- ture should be wide enough to include also small and medium-sized companies. The notion of a National Information Infrastructure, which has gained influence in the most industrialized countries, can help unleash an information revolution also in Vietnam that may change the way industry performs, institutions work, and professionals interact. Even more impor- tantly, it may open considerable information resources in other countries for Vietnamese users.

The government has recognized the need for a data communications infrastructure in its 1993 national IT program, which has a practical orientation and looks to the "effectiveness of the application of computers in socio-economic activities". The program says that it will not be enough to en- hance the situation locally by improved local area networks. What is needed is, for instance, a "national data transmission network to be linked to inter- national networks."

During the course of our investigation, we visited the library of one of Vietnam's leading universities, the Polytechnic University of Hanoi, to get a first-hand impression of its stock of specialized literature in the broad field of microelectronics and IT. We found a central library that had critical gaps among internationally important scientific and technological journals, where textbooks and monographs were relatively old, and where the students' access to what was actually available at the library was severely limited by reading room space and poor copying facilities.

In a bag, during the same library visit, one of us carried a lap-top computer with a portable CD-player that in seconds could search and retrieve information from 174 000 articles from just one CD-ROM disk, available at a annual subscription fee of US$1000 that includes a monthly up-date. The disk not only contained the full length articles from leading journals, newsletters and fact-sheets dealing with microelectronics and other information tech- nology, but also two dictionaries (of electronics and of computer terms) and more than 20 000 company profiles with their main products listed and described.

We left the University library with the firm belief that an investment of just a few thousand dollars in hardware plus a handful of CD-ROM disks would shift entirely the conditions for studying for hundreds of students (and surely also for the university staff, who rarely have much better library conditions than the students). However, a CD-ROM reader at a modern library must be easily accessible to many users at the same time and should therefore be integrated in a local area network to attain optimal flexibility. This, in turn, will influence the technical criteria for procurement.

Yet, our library visit is just one illustration to how modern information technology could greatly improve the performance of an institution or a firm without costly investments. A similar functional benefit could be attained by investing in a modem that would connect the university library to the Central Institute for Scientific and Technological Information, Hanoi, which for years has had on-line search facilities via international data-bases, but which has failed to develop close 'customer relations' with, e.g., the library o f the Polytechnic University. Another reason for the failure is the relatively high costs in using some of these on-line library search facilities. Public and private sector firms in the neighboring countries are al ready exploiting this type of information technology and are -- with some assis- tance from government agencies -- linking up to the international data communications infrastructure. In Vietnam, particularly during the coun try's transition to a market economy, the government could act as a ment or or facilitator for an emerging National Information Infrastructure. Gover nment actions could enhance the efforts by industry and assure the growth of an information infrastructure available at reasonable costs for the users. Building on similar principles as in the industrially most adv anced countries, Vietnamese government efforts to promote an emerging Nat ional Information Infrastructure in Vietnam could be steered by objectives lik e the following:

FE Extend the service concept to assure that information resource s are available at affordable prices to the industrial firms and to all relevant institutions in society such as R&D institutes, universities, high schools and other training establish ments, etc.

FE Facilitate imports and the diffusion of modern information tech nology, which is not yet developed and/or produced in Vietnam. Demonstrate new IT applications and assist (directly or indirectly) in developing these applications acr oss the economic sectors to better fit the current and future socio-economic conditions of Vietnam.

FE Promote interactive, user-driven data communications networks as a bas is for the country's already emerging wide-area networks. As a Vietnamese NII evolves as a 'network of wide-area networks', government should ensure that professiona l and other users can transfer information across networks easily, efficiently a nd at relatively low costs.

FE Secure specialized training of relevant staff serving the networks and to major user- groups such as scientists and engineers, teachers and students, etc.

FE Provide access to government information. The government shoul d ensure that its agencies use the wide-area networks and the emerging NII to expand the information available to other users. As the Ministry of Trade and Tourism a lready is making some of its economic intelligence available through its publications, modern informa- tion technology would make on-line searches in some of its data bases easy .

FE Ensure information security and network reliability. Wide-area networks in Vietnam must be trust-worthy and secure, protecting the privacy of its us ers. The overall system of communication should become reliable, quickly repairable in the event of failures and, perhaps most importantly, easy to use.

FE Improve the management of critical technological resources such as the optical fiber nets, electronic switches and the radio frequency spectrum to make transmissions of data more reliable.

FE Protect intellectual property rights. The government should i nvestigate how to strengthen Vietnam's copyright and patent laws and assist Viet namese software developers and other information technologists in retaining their prope rty rights. The government should apply international intellectual property treaties to prevent piracy and to protect intellectual property in the IT field. It should survey li cense agreements and help protect Vietnamese interests in situations where commerciall y and otherwise stronger companies abuse their bargaining power.

FE Coordinate with other countries. Because information crosses nati onal boundaries, it is critical to avoid technological and other obstacles and to overcome unfair policies that would otherwise handicap Vietnamese users.

Foot Notes:
  1. When developing this section on the concept of a "NII", we have made an effort to compare with policies formulated in some of the technologically leading industrialized countries, e.g. by the current US government. Cf. "The national information infrastructure: Agenda for action", presented in 1993 by the Clinton administration.

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