What will it take to increase broadband Internet access in the Caribbean?
Caribbean policymakers have been advocating a change in focus from voice telephony, especially mobile/cellular communications, to the Internet. This post is starting the conversation on what will it take to increase broadband Internet access in the Caribbean.
At the Caribbean ICT Ministers’ Forum held on 7—9 August in Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica’s Minister for Science, Technology, Energy and Mining, Honourable Philip Paulwell, sought to draw attention to the importance of the Internet in today’s world:
…today I challenge Caribbean peoples, Governments and telecoms operators alike: let us begin to think beyond voice telephony, he said. Let us divest ourselves of this pre-occupation with voice and pursue what really should be our true goal: affordable and ubiquitous broadband Internet access.
A 10 percent rise in market penetration of broadband services would correlate to an average GDP increase of 3.2 percent, he said, with a corresponding productivity boost of 2.6 percent.
(Source: Caribbean Journal)
Minister’s Paulwell’s position is not unique. Worldwide, most Ministers with responsibility for technology, ICT, or telecoms have begun to appreciate the potential impact of ICT, and specifically the Internet, on economic, social, and overall national development. However, what will it take to increase broadband Internet access in the Caribbean? We begin to examine this question.
What is the current state of Internet broadband in the region?
Across the Caribbean, the medium that provides citizens with the greatest access to telecoms services is mobile/cellular communications. As reported in our 2013 Snapshot, most countries have been enjoying relatively high mobile/cellular service penetration, ranging from as low as 64 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in Belize, to over 205 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in the British Virgin Islands.
On the other hand, the reach of Internet broadband service is considerably less. With regard to fixed broadband, the highest subscription penetration in 2012 was found in the Cayman Islands, at 33 subscriptions per 100 of the population, whilst the lowest was found in Belize, at 3 subscriptions per 100 of the population (see Figure 1)
Although Wi-Fi is extending the reach of fixed broadband, and other wireless options, such as mobile broadband and Wi-Max, are being rolled out across the region, in many instances retail prices are still relatively high, which limits take-up of those services. Additionally, in the Caribbean, many of those wireless solutions (particularly mobile broadband and Wi-Max) tend in practice to have limited bandwidth, which may be attributed in part to the balance telecos are trying to strike between infrastructure cost and consumer prices. Nevertheless, the result is that those networks cannot support intensive or high bandwidth use, and so there is still a need to continue to develop the fixed broadband infrastructure.
Creating the enabling environment
In his speech Minister Paulwell challenged Caribbean citizens, governments and telcos to think beyond voice telephony, but to a considerable degree, governments create the enabling environment upon which “affordable and ubiquitous broadband Internet access” can be established.
Telcos have been investing in and developing the infrastructure to carry Internet broadband. However, as commercial entities for which viability and profitability are critical, there has been and will continue to be a reluctance to plough investment in underserved areas, or in an environment where the desired return on investment is unlikely.
Hence if Caribbean governments truly believe that greater Internet broadband access is urgently needed to drive economic development and improve productivity, it ought to be seen as a priority to invest in the development of the requisite networks, and not leave it solely at the discretion of the telcos. A number of countries worldwide have embarked upon large-scale fibre optic cable rollouts to provide the requisite capacity for a national broadband network. They include Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore. The frameworks to facilitate deployment of those networks have been varied, but typically had as their foundation public-private-partnerships.
Having said this, countries in the region are often quick to highlight that they are still experiencing challenging economic times, and do not have the funds to contribute to telecoms network infrastructure expansion. However, if they truly believe in the potential impact of increasing Internet broadband penetration on developing countries, then applying efforts directly to realise the desired outcome should be virtually a non-issue.
Generally, donor agencies are still supporting infrastructure projects, and many countries have established Universal Access/Service Funds from which limited monies have been expended. Through these and other channels to which governments have access, sufficient resources could be synthesised for countries to drive the development of national broadband networks, but there must be the political will to do so.
Image credit: David Castillo Dominici / FreedigitalPhotos.net