Hurricane season is, to the people of the Caribbean, an annual reminder about the lack of understanding about the region beyond its borders. News coverage typically focuses on the potential impact that could be had in the United States, with some exceptions including what may happen in the Greater Antilles. However, a simple map of the Caribbean Basin would allow us to understand that a hurricane impact to Florida or Hispaniola is impossible without affecting the Bahamas or Turks & Caicos or that close Cuba and Jamaica we find the Cayman Islands.
But we live in a different reality, the vast majority of Caribbean nations stay for most of the year in anonymity. A lack of attention that is interrupted during the northern hemisphere winter season as hundreds (if not thousands) of advertising agencies in places like London, Washington DC or Stockholm start showing potential clients images of paradisiac beaches in a Caribbean. Blue transparent water, white sands, and all-inclusive resorts combined with pirate stories to create a hypnotizing aura irresistible for many tourists that end-up spending their vacation in the region.
Yes, the Caribbean Sea have the waters navigated by pirates romanticized in songs, is the place that gave life to zombies, where rum mysteries intertwine with sins, in short, is the land of rebels and poets.
To return to the Caribbean is to move to a parallel world. To live an experience that surpasses any “return to the origin” psychoanalytical cliché. The earth from the fatherland remembers as well as its sea. For these and other reasons, it was a great honor to take part of the largest telecommunications congress and tradeshow in the Caribbean a few months ago. Hosted this time in the Dominican Republic, CANTO is an organization that groups among its member representatives from a larger and more complex number of markets than what we could find in the rest of the Americas.
Discussions at the conference rooms included talks on how to promote the development of information and communications technologies (ICT) in a market like Haiti that has been labeled by many as a failed state. A country that due to its high level of poverty, corruption and violence does not generate great interest to largest investors of the planet.
It is precisely in Haiti that ICT has the greatest possibilities to position itself in a hopeful way to improve the quality of life of its inhabitants. Efforts to include the number of people using banks through financial applications or the simple possibility of increasing political transparency by recording a video and placing it on social networks have important consequences in the first independent country in Latin America and the Caribbean. Few countries in the Americas could benefit as much as Haiti from initiatives that foster the launch of eHealth and eLearning programs.
Contrasting with the Haitian reality, Cayman Islands is a country where we find the use of state-of-the-art technologies, a stable regulatory framework, and a higher per capita income than the United States, Australia, Japan or Germany. Nevertheless, its low population and small territory prevents that a larger number of telecommunications operators become interested in launching services in this Caribbean market.
A similar situation exists on the island of Bermuda, although geographically not in the Caribbean (as well as Turks & Caicos or The Bahamas), historical and cultural connections make this Atlantic nation an example to be considered by other markets from the Caribbean Basin.
It might be in the Virgin Islands that we note the enormous differences that exist in the region. On the one hand, the US Virgin Islands (USVI) spectrum allocated for mobile services is included in the license for a region that also includes Puerto Rico. Therefore, whoever receives a license for mobile services in the smallest of the Spanish-speaking West Indies also does so in the USVI. Interestingly, the same mobile operators are not offering services in these two Caribbean territories of the United States. If we take a look at the mobile market of the British Virgin Islands (BVI), we see that the launch of a new technology takes longer and there are fewer mobile service providers.
Among the various issues that were addressed during CANTO, there were two that grabbed the attention of many attendees. The first is the increasing importance of content in the world of telecommunications, not simply in its creation, but in all segments of its value chain. The future of telecommunication networks will be intrinsically linked to the development of content that addresses local needs and allows those who consume it to identify with a close reality while simultaneously being part of the global village.
It is for this reason that the entities in charge of producing Caribbean content – in the four main languages of the region – must begin to improve their distribution logistics. The same must be accompanied by local storage that allows to reduce access costs, especially in markets that do not have a great diversity of international traffic gateways. Fortunately efforts to diversify international gateways are continuing, as are those aimed at hosting content locally.
The logistics side is also the simplest. The tricky thing, as companies that operate in a multiplicity of Caribbean markets have experienced, is how to identify content that generate high consumption demand. Even universal themes like sports experience the fragmentation of their consumption in a geographical area where the population divides its passion among baseball, football and cricket.
The second issue under discussion dealt with the digitization of all the productive segments of the economy. Here we touched on topics ranging from the integration and support of the Internet of Things in the design of LTE Pro to the availability of devices that facilitated the digitization in the Caribbean.
As part of a panel in regional digitization, I asked the audience to move away from the grandiloquent discourse on digital cities, to take a step back and confront the Caribbean reality. While countries like Puerto Rico, Jamaica or Belize can talk about digital cities others like Anguilla, Tortola or Barbuda have to become digital islands.
For me it was important to highlight the importance of fiber optic networks as an essential element in any strategy having as its ultimate goal the digitization of the economy. Fiber optics should be considered not only as an element used for data transport services, it is imperative that its use for access increases exponentially in the coming years to at least reach the Barbados levels of capillarity – over 85% of Barbadian households able to contract FTTx services.
Digitalizing the economy is an enormous challenge if you take into account the large number of technical specialists needed for this venture. In this sense, the expansion of online education programs by the University of the West Indies is an initial step in the very important role of educating the region’s future leaders, after all, in a few decades it would be them leading the governments of the Caribbean. In addition, higher education institutions such as the University of the Bahamas, INTEC in the Dominican Republic, and the Mayaguez University Campus in Puerto Rico should continue their efforts to raise awareness of the importance of ICT in the economic growth and social development of a country.
One last comment that I made during my brief intervention in CANTO was to remind the audience about the existence of the only supranational telecom regulator in the Americas: ECTEL. Responsible for enacting laws in five Eastern Caribbean markets, logic dictates that it would be through this entity that we would see the beginnings of a pan-regional regulation to promote the emergence and growth of a Caribbean digital market.
Overall, the CANTO conference highlighted how different regional experiences can be used as a link that unites the different markets in their search for ICT development, shortening the digitalization distance between this beautiful region of the Americas and the rest of the world.
All images are from Pixabay.