Asking the right questions to improve global ICT ranking
A discussion on Jamaica’s plan to conduct an island wide telephony penetration survey.
Over the past few years, and especially with regard to telecoms and ICT, Caribbean countries have become more aware of how they stack up against other countries. Survey results and global ranking instruments published by organisations, such as the World Bank, World Economic Forum and United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, are eagerly anticipated and widely discussed. However, more importantly, those results tend to be used to highlight existing deficiencies and the areas in which improvements could be made.
It was therefore no surprise when earlier this year, news reports from Jamaica indicated that a follow up national survey on Internet access would soon be administered to determine how citizens use the Internet and the activities they engage in online (Source: Jamaica Observer). However, a news item last week, from the Jamaica Information Service, stated that an island wide survey will be conducted “ to determine why the country has been losing its ranking on the world telephony penetration index”.
According to Philip Paulwell, Minister for Science, Technology, Energy and Mining,
After 15 years of liberalisation and Jamaica leading the region, we have slipped somewhat in our ranking. We believe there must be some explanation for it, because Jamaica has virtually become a mobile marketplace…
(Source: Jamaica Information Service)
Although the article did not specify which global survey is the impetus for that new survey, the reported focus on telephony penetration, and and on mobile/cellular penetration in particular, based on the Minister’s statement, seems odd.
First, a high mobile/cellular penetration rate, specifically that over 100 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, is not necessarily a good thing. Typically it means that individuals possess two or more phones, each from a different carrier, and that the off-network calling rates are quite high in comparison to on-network calling rates. In essence, a mobile/cellular subscription penetration rate over 100% could speak to some level of dysfunction in that segment of the market.
However, as the dispartty between on-network and off-network pricing narrows, and features such as number portability are introduced – all signs of progress in the space – it might no longer be critical for individuals to have more than one phone, which could cause the mobile/cellular subscription penetration rate to drop.
Second, recognising that most of the global surveys of note tend to focus on the impact of telecoms and ICT, and not just on access to technology, it is vital for Caribbean countries to recognise the importance of the enabling environment and the extent to which productivity-related use is fostered. With regard to the enabling environment, though much has been done across the region to liberalise telecoms markets, which have facilitated increased access to a broad range of telecoms and ICT services, the other supporting structures that would foster innovation and wealth creation have not necessarily been given the same attention. Hence addressing elements, such as the legal framework and matters related to the ease of doing business, create a more attractive environment for both local and international investment.
Using ICT to realise productivity-related improvements is also critical. Although Internet access and use might be high across most Caribbean countries, if it is not being used to improve productivity and efficiency in governments and businesses, and is being used primarily for entertainment by individuals, it may not necessarily be seen to be adding value to the country. Within the public sector, for example, and through increased adoption of electronic government, there is considerable scope to improve productivity and effectiveness across governments. However, those measures will also have an impact on the private sector and individuals, and how they use technology, due to the frequent engagement they tend to have with their governments throughout their lifetimes.
In summary, Jamaica’s effort to delve beneath the numbers is commendable, as it is only when a situation is understood that real and meaningful change can be effected. However, it is hoped that they are asking the right questions in the first place in order to get as true understanding of the situation at hand, and the proper basis for far reaching decisions.
Image credit: Albert G (flickr)