Regional broadband policy to drive greater internet access

-CARICOM

CARICOM officials responsible for Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) met in Grenada last week Thursday and Friday to discuss proposals for a regional broadband policy that would facilitate greater internet access.

In a press release, CARICOM said the case for the policy was premised on the recognition that broadband is an essential measure to advancing the CARICOM Single Market and achieving the seamless single economic space. Its development was mandated by the 36th Special Meeting of the Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) on ICT, in May 2011.

In his presentation, Chief Knowledge Officer, Congress WBN, Bevil Wooding made a compelling case for increased broadband access in the Caribbean. He acknowledged the need for an overarching regional policy but cautioned that there was a need for proactive country-specific broadband plans, because each country was at differing stages of development.

CARICOM Secretariat Deputy Programme Manager Jennifer Britton was optimistic that a regional policy would help to realise the ideals of the integration movement. In making a case for the policy, she enumerated several benefits of increased broadband access in the Caribbean. These include a full employment economy, a decent standard of living, improved quality of life for all and “spatially equitable economic growth within the Community.” More importantly, she noted that affordable broadband access would help to eliminate poverty and provide adequate opportunities for young people in the region. Major opportunities are also possible for CARICOM businesses as long as there is enough investment in high-speed broadband access and support for innovation and research, she added.

Britton’s claims have been fully substantiated by evidence based on studies done by several organizations and countries, many of which speak to the job creation potential of broadband access.

Despite compelling evidence, however, the Caribbean lags behind with its investments in ICTs. According to the Officer in Charge of Trade and Economic Integration (TEI) at the CARICOM Secretariat, Desiree Field-Ridley, there is a continuous play of “catch-up,” in the Caribbean. Our internet penetration stands at a meagre 28.2% with just a little more than 11 million internet users, 6-million of which are Facebook users; and to date, only one country can boast a draft broadband plan.

The one-and-half-year-old United Nations-endorsed Broadband Commission for Digital Development has set four new ambitious, yet achievable targets for making Broadband policy universal, boosting affordability, connecting people and increasing internet access. These targets have been distilled into the following four objectives achievable by 2015: All countries should have a national broadband plan or strategy or include broadband in their Universal Access / Service Definitions; Entry-level broadband services should be made affordable in developing countries through adequate regulation and market forces (amounting to less than 5% of average monthly income); 40% of households in developing countries should have internet access; and internet user penetration should reach 60% worldwide, 50% in developing countries and 15% in Lesser Developing Countries (LDCs).

For the Caribbean to realize these targets it must invest heavily in ICT and specifically increase its Broadband access. “While investments should come from both the private sector and government, CARICOM must of necessity lead the way,” Wooding said.

Forging private/public partnerships and partnerships with International Development Partners (IDPs) is an imperative for CARICOM to even consider increasing its Broadband access to 2.0 G/bits. The Inter-American Development Bank at a recent CANTO-IDB Broadband Forum in Miami  –  which CARICOM ministers with responsibility for ICT attended  –  announced their intention to partner with the Caribbean Association of National Telecommunication Operators (CANTO) to provide Latin America and the Caribbean with technical and other assistance to accelerate Broadband development “as a critical technology for innovation and as a means to increase productivity, growth and social inclusion, in four main categories: policy, strategic regulation, infrastructure development and capacity building.”

CARICOM, of necessity, must not waiver in maximizing this opportunity. Its largest constituents – the youth, deemed the future of the Community – are looking outside the Community for the realization of their hopes, aspirations and economic empowerment. “They want a better quality of life with quality services delivery and they want it now!” the release said. Therefore, the urgent need to expedite a regional broadband policy cannot be over-emphasized.

In the light of this, the Meeting of Senior Officials on ICT will recommend to the COTED, a policy framework which includes a 2.0Mg/bits per second as a minimum base-line speed to be considered as Broadband access; clear definitions for affordable access in keeping with the targets set by the Broadband Commission; a solid legislative environment and the development of national governance structure to treat with critical policy issues.

The meeting agreed that high capacity Broadband connections are essential elements in modern society. They also acknowledged the urgent need to accelerate Broadband deployment and adoption in the Region “to create knowledge based, smart, digital economies where all citizens have an equal opportunity to participate in the global economy and ultimately improve their quality of life.” The meeting also noted that it is clear that without Broadband infrastructure and services, developing countries risk exclusion from participating in the burgeoning global digital economy. High-speed internet broadband – whether via fibre networks or wireless – is a pre-condition for a strong digital economy in CARICOM.

CARICOM, therefore, in building a future for its peoples, must make Broadband an imperative – an economic imperative. According to Wooding, “it is no longer a nice to have, but a must have.” The issue therefore cannot be the cost for adequate Broadband access but the cost for not having it.

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