About 4 months ago, announcements were made that Barbados planned to be the first country in the world to provide free Wi-Fi island-wide, with a target date of 11 November 2011. This post examines how Barbados intends to achieve 100% Wi-Fi coverage, and some of the anticipated benefits of such a project. Your thoughts/comments would be welcomed.
The promise to realise 100% island wide Wi-Fi coverage was first announced by the Barbados Entrepreneurship Foundation (BEF) at its inaugural Summit in November 2010. The BEF is a voluntary, non-profit organisation, established in 2010, which aims to facilitate business development, especially entrepreneurship, in Barbados.
The organisation’s vision is for Barbados to be the #1 entrepreneurial hub in the world by 2020. The free island-wide Wi-Fi initiative, where it is hoped that coverage will be available “from bus stop to rum shop”, a phrase coined by Barbados’ late Prime Minister, Hon. David Thompson, has been dubbed “11.11.11 ON – Wi-Fi Barbados”, and is seen as a major step towards achieving that vision.
Network deployment and sustainability
To build out the free Wi-Fi network, the BEF is relying on the local business community in Barbados to configure their internal networks to include guest networks that allow free wireless Internet access. The modifications required to existing networks could range from a few hundred Barbados dollars, e.g. to procure and install a wireless router, to a few thousand dollars, should a more elaborate or powerful system be desired.
In addition to equipment procurement, there are a broad range of issues, especially those related to network security and bandwidth sharing between the internal and guest networks, that must be considered. The PowerPoint Presentation below has been prepared by the BEF and gives more details on Wi-Fi project and its requirements.
To be clear, the BEF is not financing the Wi-Fi roll-out. As a voluntary organisation, it sees itself as a facilitative force that inspires, educates and motivates. Hence the successful realisation of 100% Wi-Fi coverage will be dependent on the willingness of local businesses and organisations to participate in the scheme and to bear the necessary costs.
Connection speeds and user experience
The participating businesses have complete discretion in the connection speeds that they make available on their guest networks. However, the service ought to be functional, or else it will be counterproductive. The BEF thus envisages that the public will be given free access to sufficient bandwidth to communicate and to carry out certain business activities.
The organisation does not advocate or expect people to be able to download movies, etc, from the free hotspots. Ultimately, the hotspots should not be seen as replacing a person’s own private arrangement for Internet access; they are providing connectivity when one is on the move.
Potential benefits and opportunities
The BEF believes that there are a number of far reaching benefits for Barbados through realising 100% Wi-Fi coverage. They include the following:
- International competitiveness. Barbados must be able to access global markets. It must be competitive to play in those markets, and to do so it must have ICTs. Further, for small nations, with limited resources and whose economies are service-based, it is imperative to achieve technical competence and connectivity in order to be competitive.
- Reducing the digital divide. Historically, Barbados has placed a premium on education. Free education is available to all of its citizens up to university, which the BEF believes has allowed the country to ‘punch above its weight’. In applying that same principle to ICTs and the Internet, Barbados plans to leave no one behind, which will serve to equalize opportunities and increase its e-literacy and potential to innovate.
- Increased tourism and business opportunities. Chris Harper, the BEF’s Programme Manager, explained this benefit:
Every visitor stepping off a plane will be greeted with Wi-Fi access throughout the stay of their vacation until they get back on the plane. This will add tremendous value to our tourism product and promote Barbados as a business friendly, tech savvy destination.
Operating in a Wi-Fi nation where access is the standard will allow our business [activity] to grow and become more sophisticated. This in turn will quickly develop a business environment that will be more competitive both locally and internationally. This business facilitating environment is what will attract global businesses to Barbados. A perfect example of this is McKinney Rogers International which has 14 offices around the Globe, but its headquarters is based locally in Barbados.
What can we learn from Barbados’ Wi-Fi project?
Barbados’ Wi-Fi project, which is still on track to be achieved by 11 November 2011, is a remarkable undertaking, and the BEF must be congratulated for its resourcefulness and vision. The initiative not only provides the country with a framework to realise the benefits and opportunities that have been envisaged, it is also an excellent foundation for other projects that can further increase the island’s international competitiveness.
But where is the rest of the Caribbean with regard to similar programmes? That is the question to be answered. There are other countries in the English-speaking Caribbean that might be better positioned than Barbados, in terms of available Internet speed, capacity and affordability, to foster greater Internet use by individuals and businesses. However, their plans might be quite complex, capital intensive and time-consuming. As it currently stands, most countries are keen to harness the Internet and ICTs to increase investment and competitiveness, but how efficiently and effectively are resources being used to that end? Some of the most striking features of the Barbados project are:
- its simplicity – it is relatively inexpensive and not complicated to deploy;
- it is private sector driven and implemented; and
- the fact that it is mutually beneficial to both the participating businesses and the country.
As it currently stands, Barbados is considered to be the third most ICT ready country in the Americas, behind the US and Canada. This ranking will no doubt improve when the Network Readiness Index assessment is conducted for 2011/2012, thanks to this simple but ambitious project.
Acknowledgement: ICT Pulse would to thank Ms. Melanie Jones, BEF Board Member and Pillar Champion for 11.11.11 ON – Wi-Fi Barbados, and Mr. Chris Harper, the organisation’s Programme Manager, for providing much needed insight on the Wi-Fi project, which has been used to prepare this article.