THE BUSİNESS YEAR talks to R. Guluzadeh, Minister of Communications and High Technologies, on satellite development, e-government services, and the encouragement of start-ups.
R. Guluzadeh was educated at the Azerbaijan State University of Economics and between 2005 and 2015 worked at the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, participating in numerous local and international projects. He became Minister of Communications and High Technologies in January 2016, having previously been the First Deputy Minister.
What is being done to develop the space industry in Azerbaijan, and how would you gauge the importance of the country's telecommunication satellites?
The establishment of the space industry in Azerbaijan in 2009 ushered in a new era in the development of the country's ICT sector. In particular, the state program for the establishment and development of the space industry in the Republic of Azerbaijan was approved by President Ilham Aliyev in August of that year. It signaled the start of a revolutionary strategy for the formation of new, large-scale ICT infrastructure in the region. It was a huge step in the direction of developing telecommunications. At the same time, it presents another promising non-oil sector for the national economy. Satellite communication plays a major role in the country's telecommunications infrastructure. The presence of satellite communication in mountainous countries like Azerbaijan is important for high-quality and relatively inexpensive communication systems. From this perspective, Azerbaijan's first satellite, Azerspace-1, has eliminated the country's dependence on other countries, enhanced information security irrespective of the availability of aboveground infrastructure, and enabled quality communication services at any time and in any location. Covering a third of the planet, Azerspace-1 plays an important part in linking more than 50 countries. Works on the manufacturing of the Azerspace-2 satellite are currently under way, with plans to put it into orbit in 2017. Another interesting project is associated with the production of nano-satellites. Azerkosmos and the National Aviation Cooperation have started cooperating in this direction and have begun the implementation of a student satellite project CanSat. Another important issue is the training of national personnel. I am delighted to note that the Azerspace-1 satellite is being successfully operated by local specialists. In general, it would be safe to say that all aspects of this relatively new segment of our economy are developing and satellite services have been organized in Azerbaijan quite successfully.
How would you assess the establishment of electronic government services in Azerbaijan and what is being done to expand this initiative?
The central objective of the modernization policy in the country is to create an advanced system that serves the interests of our citizens in every sphere. E-government is a crucial component of such a system. There is a great demand for electronic services. Work in this direction began when the President of Azerbaijan initiated the Electronic Azerbaijan State Program. In an effort to expand the use of electronic services, the e-government portal was established on the basis of the “one window" principle. E-government represents a quick and easy form of communication between state bodies and citizens because online services mean zero bureaucracy. The Azerbaijani government is interested in developing this form of communication. Such a mechanism serves the interests of the government, citizens, and businesses. As the operator of the e-government portal, the Ministry of Communication and High Technologies cooperates closely with other government agencies to further develop this infrastructure. To date, more than 300 electronic services have been integrated into the e-government portal and the number of people using online services is increasing by the day. Some 3 million people have applied to the portal as of February 2016 and around 80,000 electronic signature cards have been issued. Azerbaijan is a civilized country, and we are working hard to provide our people with the best level of service. We are introducing technological innovation with the intent to improve the living standards of our population and the steps we are taking in this direction are bearing fruit. Even those living in the most remote villages can use the online services of government agencies. This is a huge source of pride for us.
Considering the fact that President Ilham Aliyev views ICT as a priority sector, what does the Ministry do to encourage innovation among students and entrepreneurs?
The announcement of ICT as a priority sector in Azerbaijan is underpinned by specific decisions and projects. Necessary mechanisms are being put in place to stimulate the production of competitive goods and expand activities in the sphere of new technologies. A favorable environment is emerging for the development of knowledge and innovative activities. Younger business people are taking advantage of this, as they tend to be well versed in new technologies. We are also working hard to develop scientific research in the area of advanced technologies to bring benefits to the real economy and increase investment in innovative activity. To do this, in addition to mobilizing state resources, we encourage other sources to invest in scientific research and innovative projects. I can say from my own experience that competitiveness, an improved business landscape, and access to financial resources are the keys to achieving successful results for ICT projects. The State Fund for the Development of Information Technologies established within the Ministry is doing important work in this direction. The Fund has already created a reliable platform that allows young business people engaged in innovative activities to materialize their ideas. Of 461 project ideas submitted to the Fund, it has financed 62. Also, several banks have been authorized by the Fund to provide low-interest loans to business people. In addition, the favorable conditions created at the Business Incubation Center and the Advanced Technologies Park have played an important role in the implementation of innovative ideas.
How would you assess the achievements of the business incubation centers and the goal to encourage the development of startups?
We should always aspire to research and innovate, and I believe that there is no future without high technologies. We would like to see Azerbaijan among the world leaders in this area. The role of business incubators in the development of startups around the world is undeniable. The work being done to develop business incubators provides immense support for the formation of a knowledge-intensive economy. It also helps establish an innovative ecosystem in the country. Resulting from international experience, the first business incubation center in Azerbaijan was established at the Ministry's High Technologies Park. This center, called Pi campus, is well suited to providing new companies with the required support for their innovative ideas and projects. Thanks to the center's efforts, several startup projects have developed into businesses. Interesting and promising projects are designed and developed at the business incubation center. When you visit the center, it seems as though you suddenly find yourself in the future.
Hot on the heels of the inaugural European Games, Baku is now set to host the Formula One European Grand Prix. What is being done to conduct the Formula One competition at a high level from an ICT standpoint?
Azerbaijan has earned a reputation for hosting prestigious international events. Our country has actually set a certain standard. To conduct each new event at the level of this standard and to excel beyond this will require a new approach. The First European Games, the Eurovision song contest, and similar events provide excellent experience for our country. We hope to be able to benefit from organizing the Formula One European Grand Prix as well. The organization of such major events requires large-scale preparation. When it comes to the level of telecommunications services during the competition, I should note that a working group has been set up to look into the technical opportunities available and provide a reliable system. A sustainable mobile communication system will be created to ensure uninterrupted transmission of information. High-speed and reliable internet services will also be organized. At the same time, all modern resources, including the Azerspace-1 satellite, will be used to facilitate the broadcasting of the competition to the world. Radio frequencies will be allocated to ensure the high quality of the broadcast. New media has a much broader audience than traditional media outlets and the demand for online viewing is huge. Taking this into consideration, there are plans to provide high-quality internet broadcasts of the competition. We do hope that participants, organizers, and tourists will be pleased with the level of telecommunications services.
As the country continues to develop, what are your expectations from the ICT sector?
The global economic recession is taking its toll on our country. Many countries have revised their economic policies in favor of non-oil sector development. Azerbaijan embarked on this process several years ago. The head of state has personally declared the sector of communication and information technologies as a future priority. The Azerbaijan 2020: Outlook for the Future development concept identifies future goals for the ICT sector as an important contributor to the national economy. As part of the national strategy, comprehensive measures are being taken to develop communication and advanced technologies. The scope of satellite services is expanding. We will continue work to increase the number and improve the quality of electronic services. The projects we are implementing to create modern telecommunications infrastructure will enable every consumer to benefit from the highest level of services. We do hope that the new technologies will serve peace and prosperity not only in Azerbaijan, but also in the whole world.