People who know me understand my special relationship with the Caribbean, that fascinating place where pirates become heroes and idyllic beaches are just part the everyday life. It is in this Caribbean where zombies reached universality, while the Chupacabras stopped being West Indian to become a citizen of the world. The Caribbean bears many of humanity’s fears, but is also a place where words from Carpentier, Walcott, Fanon and Naipaul are fused in rebellion songs calling for equality, human rights and even, as in the case of Nevis, for independence.
For these and many other reasons, it would always be my privilege to participate in events organized about this little part of the world. My role shall always be to serve as a link between those familiar with the Latin American telecommunications landscape and those focused in the competitive dynamics of the non-Spanish-speaking Caribbean Basin telecom markets.
The Caribbean is almost always ignored in all hemispheric and global discussions about telecommunications. It is easier to look into 20 large countries in Latin America (including three Spanish speaking Caribbean islands) than to think of Caribbean, a region comprised of 33 markets (again including the same three Caribbean islands) with dissimilar cultural heritage, heterogeneous legal frameworks, and a variety of languages.
Part of the ignorance towards this region arises from its fragmentation and the small size of most of its markets. It is extremely complex to analyze and understand a region that barely exceeds 40 million inhabitants, different legal frameworks, and spectrum allocations that follow channelization from Regions 1 to 3 for different spectrum frequencies.
Nevertheless, throughout the years I have emphasized that the Caribbean has, due to the high levels of technological innovation in several of its markets, an important role as a window into the future. For example, in several islands we find that the levels of fiber optic penetration to the household easily surpass 50%, being the undisputed leader of this line Barbados with more than 85% of the homes with FTTH and around 106% penetration of mobile broadband services by year-end 2016. Figures much higher than those of any continental market – the most advanced being Uruguay with about 76% FTTH penetration – including Canada and the United States.
If wireless technologies development is of interest, the Caribbean presents us with international wireless transport models such as fixed point-to-point connections made possible by the proximity of many of its islands. Mobile penetration levels are among the highest in the world with around 12 markets exceeding 150% – Antigua & Barbuda above the 200% penetration mark. Figures that look more amazing when one learns that most of those top 12 mobile markets only have two operators offering service.
The Caribbean Basin is also a region with a high density of submarine fiber optic cables, Curaçao and Puerto Rico leading this segment of the telecommunications industry. If the observer is interested in the rapid adoption of new technologies, the first of LTE and LTE Advanced commercial networks of Latin America were launch in Puerto Rico in 2011 and 2014 respectively, the latter two years before the first launch of LTE Advanced in Chile.
Nor do I want to imply that everything is progress and innovation in the Caribbean. There are markets where the commercialization of telecommunications services is extremely complex due to political instability, extension of existing infrastructure, and low purchasing power of its inhabitants as is the case of Haiti. Even the Amazon jungle has a role to play, it presents an obstacle to provide connectivity to population living in isolated locations (i.e. far from the coast) in countries like Guyana and Suriname, as well as France’s oversea department French Guiana.
This variety of realities is precisely what provide multiple examples on how to offer profitable telecom services in markets that have already surpassed saturation levels. The small size of many of the Caribbean islands means that the adoption of new technologies happens more rapidly than in the rest of the hemisphere. It is for this reason that when talking about diversifying services, consolidation and looking for ways to monetize the presence of nationals in other parts of the world we may find more successful business models in the Caribbean than in Latin America.
For example, Latin American operators have been trying for years without much success to obtain benefits from their emigrants communities in the United States and Europe. Surinamese operator Telesur has been able to maintain the operation of a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) in the Netherlands for almost a decade. In addition, Surinam had at year-end 2016 a network of about 80 radio bases of LTE to offer fixed broadband services, relying on point-to-point links in the band of 3.5 GHz to offer backhaul.
Unfortunately, not all are good news in the northern part of South America, a project to connectivity to isolated locations that was going to be supported by LTE TDD was abandoned by Guyana’s authorities a few years ago.
From a regulatory perspective, it is in the Caribbean that we find the only supranational regulatory entity in the Americas, a telecommunications regulator with jurisdiction in five independent countries of the Lesser Antilles. The Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (ECTEL) is the highest telecommunications authority for Dominica, Grenada, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts & Nevis and Saint Vincent & the Grenadines.
The Caribbean Basin is a region where we can find from the traditional copper and fiber optics networks connecting every household to microwave equipment being utilized to establish point-to-point transport links between neighboring islands or provide connectivity to a village located in the middle of the Amazon. Governments from this region are adapting and learning to use different technologies to bring their service to users.
It seems that although geographically the Caribbean is close to many of us, our knowledge about its markets is mostly limited to white sand beaches, exotic drinks and great singers.