As with every holiday season, the end of 2017 will see many people across the Caribbean shopping – to mark the holidays and to share goods with family and friends. This tradition is carried out in the Caribbean and around the world. Unlike many other areas of the world though, the Caribbean and its business community continues to face some unique challenges. Our region is blessed with diverse cultures, great businesses and friendly people. There is so much to be said for making a home in the region, starting a business and building relationships among the Caribbean community. These virtues are not only longstanding and enduring, but growing. While the politics of CIPs in our globalised economy are complex, the fact that more and more citizens of the world seek to make the Carribean their home, affirms that our region is special.
These virtues notwithstanding, it’s a reality that logistics and red tape continue to be a challenge to local business. This is especially so in the field of eCommerce, and the holiday period offers a particularly vivid example of this with so many people of the Caribbean looking to buy gifts and treats from near and far. Results can vary widely depending on where you live, where you buy and how your goods are transported. The first step to this is, of course, access to the internet.
In recent years the Caribbean has seen much attention placed on the greater growth and promotion of eCommerce. Some good inroads have been made here but, as eCommerce will always depend on the internet for its operation, slower internet limits its growth. An upgrade of internet speeds could boost economic productivity throughout the region.
For anyone in the wider Caribbean reading this online, your internet speed could vary widely depending on location. Though Trinidad and Tobago (43), Bermuda (46), and Panama (50) rank in the global top 50 for broadband internet speeds – ahead of nations like Mexico, India, Brazil, and Turkey – the rankings belie a deeper story about speed.
At 34.10 download mbps, Trinidad and Tobago’s speed is decent but still below the global average of 40.11. It is also significantly outpaced by the top three nations of Singapore at a whopping 153.85, Iceland at 147.51 and Hong Kong at 133.94. Closer to home, the United States at 75.94 and Canada at 67.49 represent the premium offerings in neighbouring nations.
Within this internet data, there are some qualifications that need to be considered. The massive population of the US market, the close commercial links between US and Canadian business, and the heavy population density in major cities across both nations, can all play a big role in driving down internet prices. Expecting the city of Hamilton, Bermuda, with a population of 65,000 on the island nation, to have the same internet market as New York City with a population of 8.5 million, would be unreasonable.
As a general rule, the smaller a population, and more dispersed its people, the more expensive internet will be. Nonetheless, dismissing progress here simply by pointing to Singapore or Hong Kong’s advantages as small but dense locales won’t do. The rapid speeds possessed in Iceland, with a population of just 334,000, and Lithuania (ranked 11 with a speed of 75.94), with a population of 2.87 million, show internet speed isn’t just a question of size and urban sprawl.
Sure, the Caribbean has some special challenges in this regard. The spread of our island nations over the sea means a maritime challenge is posed to internet connectivity. The same difficulty does not exist for regional connectivity on a big land mass like Africa or Latin America.
This notwithstanding, the geography of the region doesn’t let governments off the hook.
As stated in the February 2017 report by the Internet Society into Carribean access: “Caribbean governments have been largely responsive rather than proactive in nurturing the development of the Internet to meet their countries’ needs.”
The stats of Caribbean internet access are more confronting when it comes to mobile speeds. While nations like Singapore and Iceland once again feature near the top, at 62nd, Guatemala is the fastest mobile nation in the Caribbean with a download speed of 18.45mbps. Again, there is some qualification necessary here, as mobile speeds are presently half that of broadband speeds, with the average global speed around 20.28mbps versus the aforementioned average of 40.11mbps for broadband.
Nonetheless, mobile internet use (whether smartphone or tablet) is predicted to overtake desktop computer use. In fact, stats suggest it already has. Any nation seeking the opportunities of the disruption era in our global economy will need to plan for an internet age that is fast, universal, and agile. This applies to whatever device the online world is accessed on.
While the reasons for delaying greater progress on internet connectivity may be complex, the consequences of further delay are simple: it could fundamentally endanger the regional economy in the long term. The Caribbean faces some real challenges as a region; failing to seize on this opportunity would be detrimental.
Our two key industries of tourism and finance are robust, but also not invulnerable. The recent hurricane season tragically showed this with the former; recent leaks of the Paradise Papers and news of an EU blacklist have placed new pressure on the latter. Other regions will continue to speed up their internet access and, over time, compete more widely in tourism and finance.
In this context, it is no surprise that regional governments are looking for new avenues for profit, and the prominence of CIPs in this strategy has proven controversial. While CIPs will remain widely debated, it’s undoubted that greater advancement in internet access across the region would be widely supported. This, coupled with the pursuit of other areas such as cryptocurrency and blockchain development, could, in time, be a profitable area for the Caribbean.
Missing this opportunity would also be regrettable as the issue has been brewing for a while now, with the OECD last year citing the Caribbean and Latin America as key regions in need of greater advancement in this field, and access and affordability cited as key issues. Expecting uniform access and pricing throughout the region would be unrealistic right now but the considerable difference in affordability and internet speed could be a greater regional priority.
By many measures, the Caribbean region is already a leader in the global economy – as a leading region for tourism and global finance (some of the controversies surrounding the second, notwithstanding). The tools the region possesses here means that, over time, the potential to leverage this into new areas of profit could be significant, just as Singapore has carved out a new identity for itself as a financial powerhouse of Asia, and how the tiny nation of Estonia has emerged as a leading nation for blockchain technology, not only in Eastern Europe, but across the whole world.
It is true that these transformations take time and resources. It is also far better to work ahead of the curve, than try to play catch up once behind it. Though the exact shape and scope of eCommerce in the years ahead may remain unclear, one need only look at the growth and expansion of the ‘big five’ – Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook – across eCommerce to know it will be an area of growth, now and into the future.
This becomes an even more pressing issue in a world that is seeing a growing debate in the United States and around the world surrounding net neutrality. Whatever your view on that debate, it is undoubted that should new reforms be brought about, it could bring the capacity for service providers to vary rates of speed and access. The net neutrality debate is presently focused in the US but it could have knock-on effect for internet providers and access globally.
While the Caribbean may be more limited in land mass, infrastructure and population compared to other regions of the world, the digital economy could provide for an online marketplace that is universal, and borderless, and that increasingly sells digital assets. This could not only negate the existing challenges with economies of scale, logistics and personnel that have traditionally made it harder for the people of our region to compete, but also play to our local strengths.
Within the Caribbean exist the business acumen, skilled professionals and cultural traditions to engage globally. The strength of existing industries shows this. In tandem with the potential offered by CIPs, and cryptocurrency and blockchain, eCommerce is a promising area for growth when built on these foundations. But it will require fast internet speeds to really support it. Even for nations like the Bahamas that have made solid inroads in eCommerce, more could yet be done.
After all, if Saint Lucia and its business community has so wonderfully shown its capacity to build a digital identity while ranked 122nd in the world on internet speed, just imagine what it could do if ranked 1st or 2nd. OK, even if obtaining the hyper speeds of Singapore or Hong Kong remains difficult, what about being ranked 12th then? Or even 22nd?
The people of the Caribbean require progress within tech and infrastructure to help them best use these advantages in the digital economy. With good long-term planning and policy, the region could emerge as a leader of its own in the online age. This is a regional issue but will be most visible firstly on a local level. A few areas will be very important to watch in the year ahead:
• Watching for any key discussion of internet speeds in upcoming elections
• Watching for economic growth as islands like Montserrat receive internet upgrades.
• Watching for entrepreneurs in the Caribbean business community who drive innovation.
• Watching for this in the commercial sector as Cisco and Digicel begin the rollout of their Caribbean Countries Digitization policy.
As the Internet Society indicated, “Government support structures, such as investment incentives to improve coverage, are limited”, and “development of relevant content, services and applications (particularly e-government) would drive demand”.
Governments must be leaders in this field. They can develop in conjunction with private innovation, but they must lead and not follow; be at least an equal partner, and not simply an observer.
As 2017 draws to a close, and we reflect on the year of business, the people of the Caribbean will consider what the local economy will look like next Christmas in 2018. And in 2019? And in 2020?
The speed at which nations like Estonia drove digital growth, affirms that a new national identity can quickly be created. But it does require government investment and infrastructure. If Caribbean governments equip the people of our region with the tools to innovate online, it is assured that those future results would inspire, just as the people of the Caribbean have inspired us across so many areas in 2017.