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Technology almost a decade later

Friday, May 17, 2013    

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Submitted by Columbus Communications in recognition of World Telecoms Day.

OVER the course of the past decade, significant progress has been made in terms of technological innovation in the telecommunications industry.

Between advancements in both submarine and terrestrial fibre (optic), broadband technology, cloud services, and information and communications technologies (ICTs) in general, industry leaders have managed to further technological capacity.

Unfortunately, however, while the technology itself has been widely lauded, many of those in developing countries have not enjoyed its benefits.

Due to the lack of a broad cohesiveness within both the public and private sectors, a slower than desired response from regulatory agencies, high entry barriers, widespread poverty, and a perceived stubborn refusal to implement change, many regions — especially those in the Caribbean and Latin America (LATAM) — have lagged in joining the globalised knowledge economy.

As the industry moves forward, it becomes less a question of invention and more about implementation. Rather than focusing their efforts solely on devising the "next big thing", organisations at every level must now work to bridge the gap created by the ever-present "digital divide," a term that denotes the technological gap that exists in regions where ICT and broadband are unequally accessible, or simply not utilised to be most effective, throughout entire populations.

The foremost issue with digital usage in these regions is that it has been directed almost exclusively at mainstream consumers, which has not led to a profound impact on all areas of society. This is a problem for two reasons in particular: one being that low-income segments are often unable to benefit from the services being offered, as lack of a sufficient PC-home penetration still plagues a sizeable portion of the populace; and two being that without the involvement of stakeholders, the market would be mainly entertainment-based with little focus on the industry's realisable potential — nation-building.

Broadband and ICT are now considered to be essential resources, similar to other infrastructure assets — water, transportation, healthcare, etc. While its necessity is obvious in today's world, it is a need that is not easily attained in the Caribbean and LATAM.

As an active participant in the region's telecommunications industry, Columbus Communications has had ample experience in identifying many essential things in these areas that are wanting.

"Quite frankly," said Columbus' CEO, Brendan Paddick, "as you travel in countries like Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Colombia... you see a lot of needs."

Yet, while the situation is apparent enough, Paddick's remarks acknowledge the absence of critical necessities that exist in many places throughout these regions. Whether it is impoverishment, lack of a sufficient healthcare system, or unequipped educational facilities, there are a number of critical issues that need to be dealt with across these developing countries.

What many people fail to recognise or simply take for granted, is the important roles that connectivity and technology play as these regions attempt to move forward and address their problems. Embracing ICT and broadband technologies is both a cause and consequence of economic growth, and it should come as no surprise that increased wealth subsequently spawns — or enables access to — an increased pool of resources.

As of now, however, digital awareness in the Caribbean and LATAM is at a relative low compared to developed countries like the United States. For example, 96.3 per cent of US households have access to wired broadband, while countries like Trinidad and Tobago and Panama have an Internet penetration of 53.2 per cent and 43.4 per cent, respectively, and they reflect percentages higher than the region's average.

That means that almost an entire population is connected in the US, while less fortunate countries in the Caribbean and LATAM generally hover around or well below a 50 per cent connectivity rate.

Access, however, is not simply dependent upon the available technology, but upon its widespread recognition and understanding, proactive deployment and affordable pricing. While companies like Columbus have been successful in penetrating regional markets, their future success is also dependent on the willingness of other stakeholders to join them in their mission as enablers.

"Broadband is not ubiquitous," said company president and COO, John Reid. "There are still many rural areas that don't have access, or at least access to 'real' broadband (ie, they have dial-up). So, the challenge for many governments and the private sector is to extend the network cost effectively to reach these under-served areas."

The process to both adopt strategies and subsequently enable sweeping accessibility is not as simple as its description may imply. It is a slow task that requires the co-operation of both the public and private sectors to define goals and identify cost-effective solutions. Nevertheless, it is clear that all stakeholders must make a collaborative effort and undertake a holistic approach to address these similar objectives, rather than try to attempt to find individual solutions to the same challenges.

A major deterrent to enabling access in the Caribbean and LATAM regions is the general lack of a strategic vision for the future at an administrative level. Even where it is possible for the available technology to be introduced, it is either improperly utilised or not used at all.

Governmental bodies have the power to raise awareness and promote the widespread usage of ICT, which, if done in an effective manner, can lead to the development of a healthy information-based society.

States that have adopted mechanisms such as e-government, e-commerce, e-health, and e-learning are at a greater advantage to affect digital competency, as each of these are important drivers of increased broadband and ICT adoption. Public investment in such an infrastructure, alongside policies that promote universal access and thus lower entry barriers to those very services, would not only benefit the industry, but would give an incentive for private investors to follow suit. This, in turn, would spur demand, create jobs and, therefore, simultaneously boost a nation's economic and social welfare.

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