Online, offline, but still falling behind: challenges for Internet use in the Caribbean
Based on a recently published McKinsey report, a discussion on challenges for Internet use in the Caribbean.
At recent count, although the global population was around 7.1 billion at the end of 2013, only 40%, or 2.8 billion are online (Source: Internet World Stats). Though that figure might seem impressive, thought leaders, such as McKinsey & Company, are concerned that the 60% of the global population that are not online are falling behind considerably. In a report published in August 2014, Offline and falling behind: Barriers to Internet adoption, the firm identified factors that foster and hinder development of an enabling environment for a vibrant Internet ecosystem and Internet adoption.
Of particular note in the report were the four elements McKinsey identified as barriers against Internet adoption:
- No incentive to go online. For offline populations there might appear to be no compelling reason to go online, which could be due to, among other things, a lack of awareness of the value of the Internet; lack of relevant content and services, and a lack of cultural or social acceptance.
- Low incomes and affordability. Low-income individuals are unlikely to be able to afford Internet access, which in turn hinders their ability to join the online population.
- Limited user capability. This factor speaks to the offline population possessing limited “digital literacy”, i.e. limited ease and comfort with technology, but also includes general literacy challenges, i.e. limited ability to read and write, which also affect the incentive to go online.
- Poor infrastructure. Generally, telecoms firms tend to focus their network deployment – for mobile/cellular broadband and fixed Internet broadband services, for example – in urban and well-populated areas. In rural or otherwise underserved parts of a country, Internet access can be poor, unstable or even non-existent.
The offline and online Caribbean
Without a doubt, the Caribbean might be in a better position than many countries worldwide, economically and more so with regard to telecoms development. Having said this, there are still parts of some countries in the region for which, to varying degrees, the barriers to Internet take-up McKinsey highlighted would be applicable.
However, the more compelling and perhaps challenging situation, which is not often discussed, is how the Internet is being used in the region to, among other things,
- increase productivity
- improve efficiency and effectiveness, and
- foster innovation.
In the Caribbean, though we might have Internet connectivity and relatively high Internet penetration, in comparison to other developing countries, there is a sense that we are still not benefiting to the extent we could from that medium. Starting with governments, which whether they recognise it or not, tend to set the standards for how business is done in their domains. However, what is evident, based on practical experience and the results of the latest United Nations survey, is that electronic government (e-government) is still underdeveloped across the region. For example:
- Electronic documents are still not accepted. In many instances, and although legislation related to the acceptance of digital signatures, etc., has been promulgated, signed and print copies of documents must be submitted for successful processing.
- Online transactions and payments are still not accepted by a wide cross-section of government ministries, departments and agencies. Though credit and debit cards may be accepted, you have to go in persons to make needed payments.
- Many countries still have underdeveloped government portals. Further, limited information is placed online. Hence citizens are hard-pressed to access forms guidelines, forms, etc., in order to conduct transactions with government ministries, departments and agencies. Further, they may either have to call or visit in person to secure documents and to have queries answered about the processes they might need to follow.
Across the private sector and the broader Caribbean population, laptops, tablets and desktop computers tend to be used primarily for word processing, note making, checking emails, and to surf the Internet, especially to access social networks. Similarly, smartphones, as opposed to the simple mobile/cellular phones, are used almost exclusively to communicate – to talk, send and receive text and instant messaging, and to access and post to social networks. Are these activities all that we should be doing with all of the technology, processing power and features that our devices and the Internet have to offer?
In summary, though Caribbean countries might be in a better position than others worldwide, as it relates to the portion of their population that might still be offline/online, it does not necessarily mean that we are truly maximising the potential of, and benefiting from, the Internet. With regard to both the private and public sectors, there still might not be any incentives, or perceived benefits, to really drive the adoption of more electronic-based systems and processes by organisations and their personnel. Similarly, and among the general Caribbean populace, though there might be some incentive to go online, perhaps a true understanding of the potential of the medium is lacking, though “digital literacy’ might be high.
Image credit: Steve Rhode (flickr)