CANTO chairman outlines strategies needed to bridge digital divide

The novel coronavirus pandemic has illuminated the already stark digital inequities between those with access to reliable high-speed Internet and those without it in the Caribbean.

However, chairman of the Caribbean Association of National Telecommunications Organisations (CANTO) David Cox said if governments want to see different results with respect to digitisation, then they must be prepared to pursue different strategies.

According to him, this includes reforming legislations to reduce bureaucracy, rebalancing the terms of engagement with over-the-top communications (OTTs), lowering the taxes on the industry and the consumers, and using universal service funds to subsidise network roll-out affordability programmes.

In addition, he suggested reducing the high cost of end devices and focusing on information and communication technologies earlier and more aggressively in schools.

“The pandemic has given us an opportunity to take a fresh look at the challenges inherent in ensuring that people everywhere are connected. By adopting pro-telecommunications policies, [governments] can dramatically encourage the sort of investments necessary to supercharge a country’s digital transformation,” Cox stated during his presentation at the Jamaica Stock Exchange’s 16th Regional Investments and Capital Markets Conference held last week.

Cox, however, noted that above all, governments in the region must avoid the seductive cost of trying to resolve the problems themselves, by, for example, constructing their own networks and bypassing existing private infrastructures.

“While public anxiety about the gaps in the provision of broadband services is understandable in light of the pandemic, international precedence on direct government intervention suggests that these approaches simply do not work,” argued Cox, who is also head of regulatory affairs for Cable and Wireless Communications (C&W).

“Indeed, evidence from multiple jurisdictions have proven time and time again that such measures will result in exorbitant public spending, and create duplicate infrastructure that will ultimately become a burden on the public purse. Above all, such efforts would set the journey of digitisation back by several years,” he continued.

Cox further indicated that a new focus on partnership between governments and operators to identify strategies will help to achieve policy aims without causing undue harm to the very private sector interests that facilitate them.

“What would be preferable is to identify resources that would be necessary to subsidise the extension of existing networks, and setting clear benchmarks for performance, quality and access. In that way collaboration with the private sector can help governments fill the gaps without taking on the awesome responsibility of becoming a telecoms operator themselves,” he contended.

CANTO is a non-profit association made up of operators, organisations, companies and individuals in the ICT (telecommunications) sector.