Caribbean countries have been aspiring to become Information Societies. What does that mean, and how far are we away from that goal?
The telecoms, and more recently ICT, reforms that many of our countries have been undertaking, has typically been with the objective of becoming Information Societies, and its economic complement, knowledge economies. In the Caribbean, the reform efforts started as early as the mid- to- late 1990s, with the initial focus of introducing competition in telecoms networks and services. However, in the 10—15 years since the transformation began, how close are individual Caribbean countries, and even the region collectively, to becoming Information Societies? We briefly examine four factors. Have a read and share your thoughts and conclusions with us.
Key building blocks for an Information Society
Although there is no single definition for an Information Society, Wikipedia offers a useful starting point:
… a society where the creation, distribution, use, integration and manipulation of information is a significant economic, political, and cultural activity. The aim of the information society is to gain competitive advantage internationally, through using information technology (IT) in a creative and productive way. The knowledge economy is its economic counterpart, whereby wealth is created through the economic exploitation of understanding…
The transformation to an Information Society requires a variety of elements to be fostered. Figure 1 highlights four critical factors, which were identified by the International Telecommunications Union in Elements and Principles of the Information Society. These factors should be evident not only at the macro (or national) level, but also with respect to individual sectors and industries, and even down to the individual citizen (micro-level).
Critical to becoming an Information Society is the comprehensive roll out of the requisite Internet/ICT infrastructure and facilities in order to ensure their accessibility and availability to all citizens. Initially, infrastructure deployment should satisfy Universal Access requirements – where connectivity is limited to common access points, within a community or area, which can be reached within a reasonable distance or time frame. However, eventually, the goal should be to achieve Universal Service, where facilities and services can be made available to every individual (or household, depending on the service).
Plus: In most Caribbean countries there has been an extensive roll out and take-up of mobile/cellular services, which does suggest that they might be well on their way to achieving Universal Service in mobile/cellular services. Globally, current user and technology trends point unequivocally towards portability. Hence, the mobile/cellular phone is no longer for voice services only; technology has evolved sufficiently to support high speed Internet broadband, which potentially opens up a broad range of opportunities to the average Caribbean citizen.
Challenge: Although mobile/cellular penetration is high throughout the region – over 100% in most countries – as Figure 2 shows – Internet broadband subscriptions rates are considerably lower. Moreover, although mobile broadband services has been gaining prominence over the last several months since local telecoms providers have been upgrading their networks, retail rates are still expensive, resulting to date in limited take-up.
Equality of opportunity
Having facilitated physical access to and the availability of infrastructure and facilities, the actual use of technology across all sectors, levels, classes, and other groupings in the society is essential. Inclusiveness ought to be fostered, and hence the thrust is ultimately to eliminate digital divides especially for the traditionally marginalised, e.g. persons at the bottom of the pyramid (BoP), persons with physical disabilities, and depending on the country, women and girls.
Plus: Worldwide, and also in the Caribbean, there has been a growing awareness of the digital divide, and the need to better serve persons at the BoP. In the Caribbean, there have been a few projects geared towards addressing important needs or issues of persons at the BoP, such as developing mobile applications for the agriculture and fisheries sectors. However, it has been widely recognised that more work is needed, as there are numerous projects that still need to be developed.
Challenge: Generally, the traditionally marginalised segments of society are still being overlooked in the Caribbean, for example, building are still being constructed or have not been retrofitted to cater to the needs of the physically disabled. From a telecoms and ICT perspective, and unlike the mobile/cellular experience across the region, there has also been limited policy and regulatory intervention to specifically promote Internet access and use among persons in lower socio-economic brackets. Pricing to secure Internet-suitable devices, along with are rates for service, are still prohibitive resulting in inequality of opportunity across most Caribbean societies.
The inclusiveness of the Internet and by extension, ICT, also requires that there be diverse content to foster greater participation. At the country level, the creation of local contact can foster greater social inclusion and cultural protectionism, but more importantly it can address or contribute to critical issues of a society – with the appropriate context.
Plus: Within the Caribbean, there has been a growing focus on encouraging local content creation, so that individual countries, and the region collectively, can better address the needs of their citizens, along with the Diaspora. We are beginning to see signs of increased local content creation, as more individuals, schools, as well as public and private sector organisation establish on online presence, either through a website and/or social media.
Challenge: Throughout the region, Internet broadband is still relatively expensive, which tends to limit an individual’s use of the service, along with potential content creation activities. In-country web hosting services are also quite expensive, and although low-cost (or free) options are available overseas, take-up might still be limited due to the relatively low Internet speeds that are offered, or that the user can afford.
Freedom of expression and access
Under Article 19 of the United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
In the last few years there has been considerable debate on whether Internet access should be considered a basic right. As reported in Should Internet access be a basic right in the Caribbean?, a report published by the UN Human Rights Council was of the view that “disconnecting people from the Internet is a human rights violation and against international law, which could be seen as further supporting the recognition of Internet as a fundamental right”.
Plus: So far, virtually all-Caribbean countries have taken a relatively liberal position regarding freedom of expression online, granted there is still limited local Internet content development in most countries. With regard to freedom of access, citizens are in no way impeded in access the telecoms/ICT services, provided they are available and persons can pay for them.
Challenge: Across the Caribbean, and to varying degrees, we – policymakers, businesses and citizens – are all adjusting to the wealth of information that is becoming available online, and the controls that might still be necessary to balance certain “freedoms” and “rights”. Currently, no Caribbean/CARICOM country has mandated that the Internet access is a basic right. Although generally work continues to expand the Internet infrastructure, many countries are still grappling with providing access to basic needs, such as food, shelter, potable water and electricity. Hence Universal Internet Access typically is not a national priority.
So, how close are we in the Caribbean to being Information Societies?