COVID-19 and Digital Transformation - Beyond Coverage and Penetration cover image

COVID-19 and Digital Transformation - Beyond Coverage and Penetration

Lendon Telesford • June 11, 2020


If we are to take control of our development pathways, we must first develop the confidence to design our own way forward. From my little corner, I’ve noticed that we have unconsciously created a culture where we wait to adopt development models that were designed to fit developed countries. While COVID-19 remains a global pandemic, Governments and other stakeholders must recognise the local opportunity to control the narrative of the “new normal”, as we strive to build digital economies and ecosystems that fit our context. We can all easily opt for laying blame on our service providers for our limited ability to face and combat the numerous challenges we face in our Caribbean region. However, the intent of this article is not to point fingers; rather to determine that there are opportunities for a multi-stakeholder resolve to the problems we face in the Caribbean by leveraging a collaborative approach.

What are some key considerations to this discussion?

When one asks about the state of broadband in any country, it almost becomes automatic to interpret the question from a macro-perspective, citing network coverage and penetration as “go-to” metrics. Understandably so, at international fora, these metrics are generally referenced to paint a picture about the state of digital development within countries; hence the auto-associative response. For the benefit of persons who may not be familiar with the terms, I’ll attempt to define them here. On the one hand network coverage generally refers to the geographic area a telecommunication provider’s network covers/reaches. On the other, broadband penetration reflects the “amount” of internet access in a particular country. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect our work and education delivery workflows, It has become apparent that these metrics do not reflect an accurate state of play, especially so in the Caribbean.

As organisations and educational institutions try to adopt the “work from home” culture, we have discovered that many of our employees and students are disconnected. In cases where they are connected, their connections are inconsistent at best. While coverage and penetration within the region are relatively commendable, in my opinion, the focus on these metrics have helped to foster a sense of pseudo-satisfaction in our development. Clearly, our new reality dictates that:

1. Discussion needs to continue on bridging the digital gap.
2. Action needs to be taken to fast-track digital transformation.

In this article, I briefly share my thoughts on some other issues for consideration, outside of coverage and penetration. I think that these issues will have a direct impact on Caribbean development as we adapt to the “new normal”. Like my previous article, I draw attention to Grenada as a representative case to highlight these Caribbean issues; given that we share similar constraints and cultures.

Affordability and Quality of Service

How are we poised to realize adaptation to the ‘new normal’?

Across most Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (ECTEL) member states, the entry-level residential fixed broadband package offered by providers is between 15-25 Mbps. While this is fairly reasonable, it lags behind the U.S and Europe, where entry-level packages are in the upper fractional gigabit domain (~50-100Mbps). Without disregard for the importance of “speed”, from a consumer’s perspective, a critically important factor for consideration is the price of these entry-level packages. In Grenada’s case, the cost for an entry-level package is on average \$100-120 Eastern Caribbean Dollars. In my opinion this is expensive, especially given that quality of service is a growing concern expressed by many consumers of telecommunication services.

Unfortunately, I’ve heard of cases where, for example, consumers pay their service providers for a 15Mbps connection and receive less than 5Mpbs more than 50% of the time. Saying that this situation is unacceptable, is an understatement. The question becomes however, what does this mean in the context of adapting to the “new normal”? Simply put, this means that if our operating context were to permanently shift to a “from home” culture, it would significantly impact how well we can work/study from home. These “from home” interactions depend on a stable Internet connection, in one way or another. Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need for better networks and improved quality of service to facilitate adapting and realising digital transformation. While I can’t speak directly to why the costs are high, when would customers receive value for money? I do wonder, are there deliberate actions by service providers to maintain the status quo?

How can we accelerate positive changes towards realizing meaningful transitions?

Content Development and ...Mobile First?

In my previous article, I touched on the importance of promoting the development of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) in the region. I further highlighted the relationship and importance of developing local content and services that are context specific. This argument continues to hold true and is especially vital to the delivery of education.

As students are being asked to participate digitally in the education process, teachers and Ministries of Education have been trying to take advantage of the fact that more students (especially at upper levels) have access to mobile internet and mobile devices than they do fixed internet. While the ubiquity of mobile devices and mobile broadband must be lauded, I’ve noted another major problem brought to the fore by COVID-19.

In Grenada’s case, there is not an abundance of local digital content available. Even so, the local educational content that is available digitally is not designed to be consumed on mobile devices. This presents a considerable challenge as it directly affects a student’s learning experience.

In a recent article published by Mckinsey looking at the COVID-19 impact on student learning in the United States, the idea of learning loss was examined. The authors suggested that the degree of learning loss a student experiences is influenced by access to remote learning, the quality of remote instruction, home support and the degree of engagement. I would like to extend on this by suggesting that access to content designed for specific devices is also crucial, as it directly or indirectly affects a student’s ability to learn. Are we in a position to choose or is it now a debate about accessibility, its quality and relevance to the new scheme of things? Are we in the new scheme of things?

Investment vs Investment and Interest

In a 2016 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report titled Broadband Policies for Latin America and the Caribbean: A Digital Economy Toolkit, two challenges affecting increased broadband access and use in the Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) region were:

- Weak competition in communication market in the LAC region
- Insufficient incentives for infrastructure deployment are offered at the regional,
  national and international levels

As far as I am aware, regulatory frameworks in the Caribbean region allow for ease of entry into our markets. That being said, while I am a proponent of the open market, I firmly believe that there needs to be a balance between the issues of “investment” and interest in communities/countries within which providers operate. While it is reasonable to expect returns on one’s investment, the question becomes, should that expectation eclipse the need to promote sustainable digital development within the region? In my opinion, it is not obvious that the providers present within the region have a vested interest in the development of the communities/countries they operate within.

Are we competitive; what makes us competitive? What are our points for acceleration? What level are we aspiring to reach; and how?

How can we adjust, keep up, become resilient and maintain sustainability? I ask!

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