By Bevil Wooding
In the face of the mounting economic and social challenges, the Caribbean urgently needs to tap into new sources of growth. Across the region, the search is on for areas that will create new job opportunities, improve its competitiveness and drive innovation. Creation of a single ICT space in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) is expected to provide tremendous benefits, if the region can muster the collective strength to make it a reality.
Bevil Wooding is the Executive Director of BrightPath Foundation, an international technology education non-profit organization. Reach him on Twitter @bevilwooding or on facebook.com/bevilwooding or contact via email
On the global stage, strategic use of information and communications technology (ICT) is widely acknowledged as a critical pillar for sustainable and inclusive growth. However, the Caribbean lacks a genuine single market for electronic communications. Seeking to address this, CARICOM heads of government recently announced plans to establish a CARICOM single ICT space.
There is little debate over the need for such an initiative. The world is moving increasingly towards an Internet-based economy, directly affecting everything from traditional service sectors such as tourism, agriculture and finance to new sectors such as online retail, and software development. If ever there was a time to use ICT to breathe fresh life into the region’s economies, it is now. Yet the news of CARICOM’s plans was met with at best, cautious optimism, and in some cases outright cynicism. This is not surprising. The regional body has a notoriously poor implementation track record. And the challenges of implementing a single ICT space are similar to the challenges that hinder several other well-intentioned regional initiatives.
CARICOM is fragmented into distinct national markets, many with limited competition, aging infrastructure, outdated regulatory policy and high barriers to entry for new players. Consequently, the region is missing out on many of the opportunities of the digital age.
In an article in the Barbados Nation, the secretary general of CARICOM stated, “Despite the much reported benefits of ICT, its development and adoption by developing countries, such as ours, have so far been limited. Reasons for this include lack of awareness of what ICT can offer, insufficient telecommunications infrastructure and Internet connectivity, expensive Internet access, absence of adequate legal and regulatory frameworks, shortage of requisite human capacity, failure to use local language and content, and lack of entrepreneurship and a business culture open to change.”
The secretary general identified the benefits of the single ICT space to the region, stating, “The establishment of a single ICT space brings to the fore real benefits for consumers and businesses in our Community. The objective is to fully establish modern regional regulatory and open telecommunications infrastructures with affordable networks using converged technologies, to provide affordable and universal access. This would positively affect such issues as roaming rates, provide for a single area code as well as address copyright, spectrum and broadband matters.
“Just as important as that single space is the development of a human resource capacity in the sector. This is fundamental as we seek to build a digital culture across the Community and increase the value and volume of the region’s trained ICT workforce that can create, develop and use ICT to improve lifestyle and economic value. Promoting such initiatives would also foster innovation and increase our competitiveness, both of which are essential in achieving our goal of sustainable economic growth and development.”
Unfortunately, the noble objectives articulated by the CARICOM secretary general are already undermined by some glaring omissions. Firstly, the absence of a unanimous, unequivocal statement of commitment and support for an accelerated implementation by member governments; secondly, the absence of any evidence that there has been profound consideration of the implementation requirements; and thirdly, the absence of a detailed execution strategy and resourcing plan.
Based on the “Working Document for the Forty-Eighth Special Meeting of the Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) -- Information and Communication Technologies”, it seems CARICOM is still very much in the preliminary stages of figuring out what exactly the single ICT space means for the region. Confidence to execute also seems to be lacking as the working document outlines its objectives in optional, non-obligatory terms.
For example, in describing the delivery of telecommunications services across the CARICOM region, the document states, “operators need harmonised access to basic ‘inputs’ like fixed networks or spectrum. In particular this could involve more coordination of spectrum assignment for mobile/wireless services, in particular to align timing and specific authorisation conditions, so operators can more easily organise cross-regional activities;”
Such soft language places no pressure on member states to act or to comply. This is unlikely to instill confidence within the private sector. It is also unlikely to capture the interest and win the support of the Caribbean citizenry it is intending to benefit.
Test of Leadership
The case for a CARICOM single ICT space is strong; however, it must be communicated with conviction, and supported by tangible, decisive action if it is to succeed. The boldness to act must be rooted in an understanding of what is at stake. The economic benefits of investment in the creation of the single ICT space must be quantified. Likewise, the consequence of inaction and the implications for Caribbean economic growth and long-term competitiveness must also be defined.
Additionally, for a truly seamless space, every member states must be on board. This should necessarily include clear statements on the outright abolition of roaming rates within CARICOM; spectrum assignment coordinated at the region level; mobile and fixed broadband deployment; consumer rights and intellectual property protection harmonized across the region; and simpler, standardized rules across CARICOM to enable companies to invest more and cross borders with their service offerings.
Making this all come to pass point to one fundamental reality -- there will be no single ICT space without first a commitment to a single Caribbean space.
The first priority in designing a CARICOM single ICT space is to devote attention and resource toward removing the barriers that hinder implementation of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy. This is an inescapable prerequisite to realizing the promise and potential of ICT at a regional level. Moving from lofty statement of intent to actual creation of a single, seamless ICT space will be a test of political will and resolve across the region. Ultimately, leadership, not technology will be key to making the dream of a CARICOM single ICT space a reality.