After ranking dead last in a recent survey of Internet pricing and speeds in English-speaking Caribbean countries, Belize is taking steps to improve.
The country's Public Utilities Commission (PUC) hosted Belize's first Internet Exchange Point Open Forum, bringing together international and local stakeholders to discuss options for improving the quality and lowering the cost of Internet services for Belizeans.
PUC Commissioner Kimano Barrow stated, "The PUC wants to create an environment where Internet based companies and entrepreneurs can thrive in Belize. We were able to get two internationally recognised experts in this area to share their knowledge with our local stakeholders."
Over 65 persons representing ISPs, business, government agencies, civil society groups and academia, attended the half-day event in Belize City. Interactions centered on the economic and social benefits of improved local Internet service and how best these benefits can be realised in a Belize context. Bill Woodcock and Bevil Wooding from the US-based Internet research and training firm Packet Clearing House (PCH) facilitated the special forum.
"Ordinary Internet users in Belize deserve faster Internet access speeds, at lower prices. This is a necessary first step to Belize realizing the economic and social benefits the Internet brings--benefits that are being enjoyed in other parts of the Caribbean, and around the world," said Wooding, an Internet Strategist at PCH.
Wooding cited an international study conducted in 33 OECD countries to quantify the impact of broadband speed, showing that doubling the broadband speed for an economy increases GDP by 0.3%. For every 10 percentage point increase in broadband penetration, GDP increases by 1 per cent.
"A reduction of cost of Internet services and increase of available bandwidth to consumers has a positive impact on economic growth," Wooding said.
The Belizean economy, like most in the Caribbean-basin, has been struggling. Last May, a report from Moody warned of the "high probability" that the country could default on its debt obligations. The possibility that an improvement in Internet service can benefit the struggling economy is welcome news to policy makers and to the business community.
One attendee, Debbie Thurton-Smith, an executive at an engineering services firm in Belize City, said she was particularly impacted by the connection. "I now understand how changes to the cost and quality of Internet service can directly impact my business and the wider economy. Local businesses will now have to work together to put things in place for people to begin creating new opportunities on top of better internet service in Belize."
One recommendation that received support from the local audience was the option of establishing a facility known as an Internet Exchange Point, or IXP in Belize. The primary role of an IXP is to keep local internet traffic within local the local networks.
Woodcock, a Research Director at PCH, has been setting up IXPs around the world for more than a decade. He explained that IXPs allow Internet Services Providers (ISPs) to reduce the costs associated with exchanging traffic between their networks.
"IXPs are the places where Internet bandwidth comes from. Right now in Belize most internet bandwidth comes from Miami or Washington D.C or New York and people in Belize are paying to move that traffic in both directions to and from Miami. What we would rather see is that there would be a place here in Belize where Internet Bandwidth is produced so that you can have faster, cheaper bandwidth here in Belize," Woodcock said.
He explained that there are about 350 IXPs around the world, many of them in much smaller or poorer than Belize. He estimated that the cost of setting up 90 per cent of the world's IXPs was somewhere between US$4,000 - $40,000.
"This is not a huge investment and almost without exception that investment repays itself within a matter of a few days or weeks," he stated.
Commissioner Barrow described the Forum as a continuation of the PUC's collaboration with the Caribbean Telecommunications Union, a regional policy body that focuses on Information and Communications Technology (ICT).
"We now understand that the absence of a local IXP compromises our ability to fully leverage the potential of the Internet as a driver of economic growth, job creation and social inclusion. In Belize we want to maximize that potential, so we intend continue working to ensure that Belize takes the necessary steps to provide our citizens with better Internet services at more affordable costs."