Following Caribbean development over a period of years very often leads to an almost chronic sense of exasperation over the continued failure of our societies to intervene decisively on questions...
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Mobile-first needs broadband first
Any user of Internet-based technology knows all too well the frustration of a slow or unreliable connection. Whether it's the Internet conference-call that keeps dropping; the software update that won’t download; or the video or music stream that keep buffering; few things are more frustrating than an unreliable, balky, Internet connection. As we race into what Microsoft is calling the "mobile first, cloud first" era, the enabling assumption of available, affordable, broadband Internet connectivity is being challenged. In today’s hyper-connected world, the mobile-first, cloud-first era needs broadband first.
And the problem is not just restricted to developing regions like the Caribbean, where expensive, unreliable connectivity still characterize much of the Internet landscape. Rural communities, towns and even cities in so-called developed countries like the United States, Great Britain, France and Australia, also suffer from connectivity challenges.
Broadband for sustainable development
Broadband is a range of telecommunication technologies that provide high-speed access to the Internet. As more people use mobile to connect, it leaves businesses, governments and even education institutions will little choice but to bolster efforts to serve their target audiences on the Internet-connected platforms they use every day. Likewise, the proliferation of mobile devices and Internet dependent applications is creating unique challenges for Internet and telecommunications service providers.
Infrastructure, content, device and service operators all have to deal with the reality of explosively growing demand cloud and mobility services. The desire from consumers and corporate customers alike is to realise the promise of improved productivity, competitiveness and innovation, technology is supposed to enable.
“Many people now view high-speed access to the Internet as a right, not a privilege. It is easy to see why, given society’s dependence on the Internet for everything from basic communications to global commerce,” says Bernadette Lewis, secretary general of the Caribbean Telecommunications Union.
Speaking at the recent Caribbean Internet Governance Forum in the Bahamas, Lewis said, “The right to communicate is a foundation tenant of the information society. It must be based equitable, affordable and universal access to information and knowledge. This access in turn empowers people, countries and entire regions to meet their aspirations and achieve their development goals.”
Affordable, universally accessible broadband Internet access is key to building the information society and powering the knowledge economy. The number of smartphones in use worldwide has now broken the one billion mark. Mobile data network expansion—especially in areas outside of urban centers in emerging markets with rising middle classes—and the adoption of smartphones and feature phones with Internet capabilities will fuel growth of the mobile phone Internet consumer base.
Mobile phone users are rapidly switching over to smartphones as devices become more affordable and 3G and 4G networks advance. Between 2013 and 2017, worldwide mobile phone penetration is expected to rise from 61.1 per cent to 69.4 per cent of the global population, according to a new eMarketer report, “Worldwide Mobile Phone Users: H1 2014 Forecast and Comparative Estimates.”
More than 2.23 billion people worldwide, or 48.9 per cent of mobile phone users, will go online via mobile at least monthly in 2014, and over half of the mobile audience will use the mobile Internet next year.
Enterprises, including governments, have had to react to the explosion of data demands on their technology infrastructure while accommodating the needs of increasingly discerning and demanding users. The radical nature of the changes taking place necessitates a fundamental shift in approach to infrastructure investment models, public policy and technical capacity building.
Time for broadband action
General of the International Telecommunications Union, Dr Hamadoun Touré, describes broadband connectivity as “a critical element in ensuring that ICT can be used for the effective delivery of a vast range of services including health, education, governance, trade, commerce and so much more.”
According to Turé, broadband-based networks are powerful cross-cutting enablers to achieve the three pillars of sustainable development — economic growth, social inclusion and environmental balance.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also stated categorically that information and communication technologies are powerhouses of the global economy, offering solutions for sustainable economic growth and shared prosperity.
At a function to mark this year’s World Telecommunication and Information Society Day, he emphasised that broadband networks provide smart eco-friendly ways of managing cities and transport systems, enhance the efficiency of manufacturing industries, and make it possible to conduct long-distance diagnosis and treatment of patients in remote locations. He recognised that broadband also enables innovative educational applications worldwide.
The wide-reaching, potential benefits of broadband, demand a more deliberate, strategic approach to its adoption nationally and regionally. Now is the time to rethink strategies for deploying broadband infrastructure. There are a number of questions surrounding mobile and Internet infrastructure that need to be addressed, particularly in developing markets like the Caribbean. For example, should private sector interests have exclusive responsibility for setting the timetable for telecom infrastructure upgrades?
It is also time to develop more holistic approaches to technology-enabled sustainable development. For example, we need to identify gaps in local content – including local access to local applications and services, on local networks and facilitated by local transactions. We also need to address the research and development gaps. For example, what is the economic benefit of increasing broadband access and lowering Internet access costs to Caribbean economies?
We need to set policy priorities for allocating radio-frequency spectrum for broadband, fulfilling universal access obligations, and accelerating infrastructure build-out.
Serious consideration needs to be given to new approaches to collaboration for the greater good, such as common network infrastructure to support multiple wireless service providers. And, importantly, we need innovative financing mechanisms to support development of technicians, entrepreneurs and enterprises needed to build on broadband.
Bevil Wooding is the chief knowledge officer of Congress WBN, a Caribbean based international non-profit organisation, and the founder and executive director of BrightPath Foundation, an technology education non-profit organisation. Reach him on Twitter @bevilwooding or on facebook.com/bevilwooding or contact via e-mail at email@example.com.