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by Dr Scott Timcke
Every resident in the Caribbean requires inexpensive, unlimited communications capacity to supercharge their imaginative and entrepreneurial spirit. A prerequisite is public, last-mile, high speed-fiber connectivity.
Without this infrastructure existing digital divides will become deeper, having compounding effects on other economic sectors and leaving the Caribbean lagging in the decades ahead.
The Caribbean cannot have a limited vision of what data infrastructure can do. Fiber is more than improving internet speeds to watch streaming services. The internet is not just for entertainment – it is the key to innovation and competitiveness.
To date, too much of the conversation about digital society overlooks the physical infrastructure that gets bits and bytes to screens. But the longer this neglect continues, the graver the consequences.
The impact of last mile fiber optics is comparable to electricity arriving in the Caribbean. Earlier generations might remember how life-changing their first lightbulb was, but we now know of kitchen appliances, large-scale engineering and computation; things our grandparents could not conceive when electrification first rolled out. And much like electricity is more than lightbulbs, the same is true of fiber.
Countries like South Korea and Singapore already have 100 per cent fiber adoption and are well positioned to drive the new forms of commerce, services, and businesses that are already having an impact. Their success is not beyond the reach of the Caribbean, provided similar initiatives are taken with a sense of urgency.
Telecommunication executives prioritize 5G and other wireless technologies. But we must not ignore how 5G will create so much data that will have to be transferred. In this way fiber compliments advanced wireless because without fiber one cannot maximise what 5G provides. By analogy, airplanes need airports. The need for this infrastructure is too important to leave up to the market alone. Indeed, creating ubiquitous fiber is not the kind of infrastructure corporations typically do.
This is due to extremely high upfront costs and lower returns especially when capital has higher rates of return in other sectors. But even if they were interested, one cannot allow issues of profitability to determine which communities are connected, and when. Without government investment private companies will determine how and where the Caribbean develops, shortcircuiting democratic planning.
Most of the cost of installing last mile fiber is in the labour. But this investment in the local labour can boost employment. Additionally, once laid, a fiber optic cable lasts for five decades, the only improvements required are the electronics that power the light pulses. This is the closest to a future proof technology available now. It is not enough for any one Caribbean country to upgrade their infrastructure.
Regionally led network development through collective purchasing, installation and management, can ensure that no single person in the region is left behind.
So, it is important to make fiber part of the greater narrative for the Caribbean. For without it the region will mostly be downloading, not uploading, consuming not producing. That reality will compromise the Caribbean’s ability to compete on the international stage.
Without a multi-government led, funded, and owned rapid infrastructure buildout the Caribbean digital economy will not get off the ground. Prosperity comes from the documented economic boost brought by higher data speeds. Fiber is a proven pathway out of poverty. And all the major development challenges on the horizon are communication issues. Addressing them turns on networking that everyone can afford. In short, robust digital infrastructure is key to economic vitality for the Caribbean.’
Dr. Scott Timcke is a LUCAS-LAHRI Fellow at the University of Leeds. His most recent book, Algorithms and the End of Politics is out now with Bristol University Press. Presently he is in Barbados on the Welcome Stamp.