I had the privilege of being invited to moderate the session on government-led infrastucture development at the Caribbean Telecommunications Union‘s 25th anniversary event held in Port of Spain, Trinidad, this week. It provided an excellent opportunity to discuss in quite some detail the balance between private sector and state investment in the ICT sector, and ways through which infrastructure could be made available to some of the poorest and most marginal communities. As a moderator, I always see my role primarily as being to facilitate some lively, and hopefully provocative, discussion, and so I tried to say very little myself during the session. Reflecting afterwards, though, particularly in the wider context of the Commonwealth as a whole, the following broad observations seem appropriate:
- There is very great diversity within the Caribbean, but nevertheless I did sense that there was much greater appetite here for the state to play a significant role in infrastructure development than is encountered in many other parts of the world. It was very refreshing, for example, to hear the term “public utilities” spoken about almost with reverence. The all-too-often accepted “development mantra” that privatisation of public utilities will ensure that they are much more efficient and thus deliver on the needs of poor people and communities, was not one that seemed to be widely accepted. The belief that states have a clear duty to serve the interests of all of their people, and that this cannot be achieved through privatisation, was healthy and very different from the views that I all too often encounter.
- It was, though, clear that old business models are already failing to deliver sufficient profits for many of those involved in the sector, and that new models are required. I find this particularly exciting, because I firmly believe that there are many exciting ways through which both public services and private benefit can be achieved, through a closer working relationship between companies and governments.
- The role of regulators is particularly important at this interface. In particular, and recalling a session at the ITU’s Telecom World in Doha that I chaired last December, there is a need for regulators to think of themselves much more as “facilitators” than as “controllers”. This applies not only in terms of providing the context through which the private sector can generate profits across all sectors of the economy, and thus enable governments to generate greater taxation revenues, but also through facilitating public awareness and understanding. I was thus impressed by the way in which TATT (the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago) provides a considerable amount of information directly to consumers on such matters as “Cyberspace Dangers”, level of services expectations, and complaints procedures.
- Nevertheless, throughout the conference, I gained the impression that all too often conversations across the Caribbean have tended to happen in silos, and this was certainly the case in the session on government-led infrastructure! I was impressed that most panel sessions had speakers drawn from government, the private sector and civil society, but I got the feeling that the positions of each “sector” were often rather far apart. There needs to be much more effective dialogue between the different sectors across the region (and indeed elsewhere in the world as well) if innovative solutions are to be developed to enable everyone to benefit from Internet connectivity. To do this, there needs to be a cadre of well qualified and effective brokers who can facilitate such discussions. This is one of the key roles that I believe the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation can play.
- Small Island Developing States (SIDS) face very problematic challenges, not least because of their small market size. This reinforces the impression that I have previously gained from discussions at the UN’s SIDS conference in Samoa last year as well as work that I have done in the Pacific islands and elsewhere in the Caribbean. In particular, I am convinced that traditional arguments about competition bringing the price of delivery down for consumers simply don’t apply in many such circumstances. It really does not make sense to expect two or three operators to compete to deliver services in tiny islands. Again, the precise business models need to be thought through very carefully, but where there is a social and political appetite for public utilities still to be delivered by governments, I see no logical reason why state-owned entities cannot provide value for money efficient ICT services in small island states.
- One of the most interesting discussions during the session was the ways through which existing government infrastructure can be used to reduce costs of rolling out ICT infrastructure, notably fibre. In particular, the Puerta Rican El Zum initiative sounds especially interesting, in that it intends to deliver fibre connectivity through the sewers that link to most houses in the country. Whilst this is not a solution that would suit every country, the idea of using the vast network of existing public infrastructure as a means through which to bring connectivity to the home is indeed appealing. Likewise, I am more than ever convinced about the value of shared infrastructure solutions, and I see this as being one of the most significant things that governments can insist on in trying to reduce costs, especially in rural low-density contexts.
- This still, though, leaves the challenge of reaching the most remote, sparsely settled areas of any country, and few clear solutions or recommendations were received on how this could best be done. The debate over whether or not Universal Service/Access funds are effective continues apace, and I think that this increasingly reflects political dogma rather than actual practical reality! The reality is indeed often that money in such funds is either not used effectively, or sometimes not used at all, but the notion that taxation of some kind should be used to benefit the poor and marginalised is still a powerful one (the GSMA reports on such funds provide much helpful evidence). The size of many Caribbean, and indeed Pacific, islands is nevertheless also one advantage for them, in that being small means that the distances required for roll out of fibre, or in provision of mobile broadband services, are not particularly large, and are thus relatively cheaper than those of large land-locked states.
- Finally, we had an interesting debate on the potential of mobile app development in the Caribbean and small island states more generally. On balance, there seemed to be some agreement that the potential for app development to bring large numbers of people into the productive economy is very much less than some might advocate; thus 1.6% of app developers make more money than the remaining 98.4% combined (Financial Times). (Incidentally, Mobile Vision has some useful statistics and data on the app sector). There were, though, suggestions that there could be some potential in the Caribbean for local app developers to work on locally relevant e-government applications.
Overall, it was a fascinating discussion that raised many interesting ideas.