Time for the digital switch

Time for the digital switch

The Digital Life


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

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WE live and compete in a digital world, with the new Administration's election manifesto highlighting a digital society as imperative. The COVID-19 pandemic showed the true extent of our own digital gap as we attempted to respond to the crisis with remote teaching for thousands of students. The Government's digitisation plan must be immediate, but grounded in the principles of affordability, availability and access.

Affordability is self-explanatory. At US$5,000 per capita GDP and over half of Jamaicans earning even less, the economics of both the public purse and the “at-risk” in our socio-economic pyramid will be challenged. Availability must address the rural vs urban disparity. Access, the instruments used for digital entry, will benefit from convergence, with the same content now able to be received on phones, computers, tablets or TVs. Convergence is why a TV and mobile phone can either stream or broadcast the same football match, depending on what the consumer can afford and the networks available.

While Utopia would see fibre to every Jamaican home, that is yet to be achieved in far stronger economies with less mountainous environs. A pragmatic, balanced approach is recommended — one that would see a digital platform laid for growth into a fully digital society. Technological balance will address overdependence on subsea capacity, terrestrial fixed infrastructure and mobile technologies like LTE. Satellite technology has advanced and is suited for remote areas and national redundancy. The impact of Hurricane Dorian on The Bahamas and the tremors being regularly felt are timely reminders of this vulnerability. With all this in mind, the respective ministers of technology and information might wish to consider the following approach:

First, there is nothing in the digital world more affordable and ubiquitous than free-to-air digital TV (DVB) and radio (DAB) — and they remain the media of the masses. The perennially delayed digital switchover (DSO) must happen now to lay the foundation for our digital society. Amazon, the poster child of the fourth industrial revolution, is one of the largest advertisers on TV in the USA. Their reliance on this medium to reach the mass market evidences the enduring and complementary power of digital TV. In Mexico, all 30 million students are now being exclusively homeschooled on their TV sets. Their “low” Internet penetration (50 per cent) gave rise to this cost-efficient response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mexico's fixed Internet penetration is higher than ours and they completed their DSO in 2015. Imagine dozens of digital TV channels with free, live and recorded educational classes, news and entertainment for the 800,000 Jamaican TV households. Let's get the DSO done now.

Second, we need more competition in the telecoms industry. Government must fast-track new licensees, balancing a mix of suitable technologies and forgoing unattainable and inhibitory spectrum fees and importation duties. This should be in return for a commitment to immediate infrastructure investment and expanded roll-out. Responding to the current crisis New Zealand abandoned their 5G auction, assigned the spectrum to the operators, and gave them marching orders to go build. That kind of decisiveness is what is required here, with policymakers, regulators and the private sector in sync.

Third, rural and inner-city communities must be prioritised, with “uptown” already well-served. Operators need to be incentivised to invest in these areas, knowing the concurrent economic and geographic challenges. We proudly boast of our immense creative and athletic talent, and rightly so. But a closer look reveals Usain's birthplace as Sherwood Content, Elaine's as Banana Ground and Shelly Ann's as Waterhouse. Bob hailed from Nine Miles and “Toots” from May Pen; Shaggy, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer are from Rae Town, Waterhouse and Trench Town, respectively. The glaring evidence is that we are more likely to unearth the human resources, creativity and imagination for the digital world from the bowels of rural and inner-city Jamaica.

Fourth, we need to adopt universal student data access, guaranteeing every student a minimum amount of free data every month, scaled according to grade (eg 500MB for grades 1-3, 1GB for grades 4-6, etc), and usable on any data network available where they reside. Get all the network operators together in a task force, led by the ministry, to implement by September 2021.

Fifth, we must insist on a digital mindset and implement the legal and regulatory framework to foster it. It is welcome news that government services will be supported by investment in a world-class fibre infrastructure, but unless mindsets transition too, that investment will be wasted. There are government agencies that still insist on paper copies of letters or documents and won't accept electronic signatures or even emails, a 35-year-old technology.

Sixth and finally, there needs to be a balance between locally and foreign-owned service providers. The global power and capital backing of the big two telcos are most welcome and indeed have positively contributed to national development. But incentives and protections are needed for local operators to balance repatriation of profits with reinvestment in our communities. To have our entire telecoms infrastructure entirely foreign-owned is not ideal.

The Government's report card this term will depend heavily on progress towards their promised digital society. They will need the private and public sector to work in tandem. And with a balanced, pragmatic and decisive approach, it can be done.

Christopher Dehring is chief executive officer of ReadyTV.

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