A discussion on the increasing importance of Wi-Fi, and whether it can eclipse mobile/cellular data plans in the Caribbean.
Recent reports from the United States over the past few months have suggested a growing trend toward the public deployment of Wi-Fi systems, especially in cities, and the increased use of that medium by mobile/cellular users. Traditionally, US mobile/cellular users would connect to the Internet by having a data plan subscription, which typically would be considered a premium service – with a premium price. However, as the distinction between technology and service continues to blur, other telecom carriers – other than for mobile/cellular service – such a cable television and Internet service, are facilitating the deployment of Wi-Fi networks, which mobile/cellular users can also access. Hence, though it is unlikely that Wi-Fi will replace mobile/cellular data plans in the US, it might seriously erode its usage and correspondingly the revenues to those carriers.
The Caribbean experience with mobile/cellular Internet
In the Caribbean, however, the opposite might obtain – mobile/cellular users are more inclined to use Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet, than to purchase a data plan. Further, even if they do have a data plan, frequently, they will switch to Wi-Fi if and when they can. As reflected in last year’s snapshot of mobile broadband affordability, it might still be expensive for the average consumer to add a data plan, though increasingly the providers have been trying to woo additional subscribers by offering a wider selection of packages and price points from which to choose.
Is near ubiquitous Internet possible?
In the region, it is usually the end user, for example a subscriber of fixed broadband Internet service, who allows others to connect to his/her network via Wi-Fi, and pays for the equipment, such as a wireless router through which such access can be facilitated. However, recognising that it is at the end user’s discretion as to whether Wi-Fi connectivity is available for access by the public, it tends not to be readily available, though increasingly, there is an expectation (or hope) that businesses will offer free Wi-Fi to their patrons.
Having said this, there have been initiatives in Caribbean, and most prominently in Barbados where there was a coordinated effort by the business community to realise free island wide Wi-Fi connectivity. The project, which was spearheaded by the Barbados Entrepreneurship Foundation in 2010, relied upon local businesses volunteering to configure their internal networks to include guest networks that allowed free wireless Internet access, and bearing the associated costs.
Within one year of announcing the project, approximately 25% geographic coverage was realised. However, based on the distribution of the population in Barbados, where over two-thirds of its residents live in the west and southern parts of the island, well over 50% of the population ended up being covered. Additionally, the areas of heavy commercial activity, which again are in west and south, including the capital, Bridgetown, were the ones with a high concentration of Wi-Fi hotspots. Hence persons on the go in those areas were likely to be able to maintain near continuous Internet connectivity – without having to use a data plan.
In summary, as the Internet becomes increasingly integral to our daily lives, and we are expected to be continuously connected, it is imperative that we have more affordable and cost-effective access options , especially for persons at the bottom of the pyramid. Wi-Fi could be a solution. However, for it to be implemented in a truly meaningful way, it might not be enough to rely upon existing broadband Internet customers to bear the costs of sharing their bandwidth. It might be more appropriate for policymakers, if they deem this important and recognising that many countries across the region have a Universal Access/Service Fund for telecoms, to work with the telecoms firms to make access to the Internet move from being a privilege for a select few, to a right for all.
Image credit: Salvatore Vuono (FreeDigitalPhotos.net)