Economic Update

Published 23 Jun 2017

A national drive is gaining pace in Trinidad and Tobago to prioritise access to data services as an engine for economic growth, part of wider plans to reduce the country’s reliance on hydrocarbons.

In late April Maxie Cuffie, the minister of public administration and communications, announced that a new broadband strategy targeting universal access to internet services was almost finalised.

Speaking at a conference titled “Internet of Things: Smarter Living in the Caribbean”, held in Port of Spain, Cuffie said the potential broadband offered could be compared to that of T&T’s hydrocarbons sector. He voiced his confidence that increased reach and speed, combined with a rise in Wi-Fi-capable devices, could deliver significant ripple effects across the national economy.

“This level of potential connectivity presents, then, the perfect storm for the mushrooming of internet of things, and we believe that data is indeed the new oil,” he told the audience.

Data as a diversification tool

Cuffie added that developing broadband formed part of a wider programme that targets using ICT as an effective means of facilitating fast and efficient delivery of public services, and encouraging business growth in an increasingly diverse economy.

The private sector would continue to take the lead in internet and ICT development, the minister said, although the government plans to boost its role as facilitator of development.  

As part of its bid to provide the population with universal access to basic telecoms and broadcasting services, the government is widening the network of free Wi-Fi access points across the islands. Speaking at the same conference, Gilbert Peterson, chairman of the Telecommunications Authority of T&T, said the authorities planned to deploy 45 Wi-Fi hotspots in public places across the islands.

“Locations are waiting areas at public hospitals, major transportation hubs, water taxi and ferry docking areas, and public libraries,” he said.

Peterson added that the push to close the digital divide and “connect the unconnected” also includes plans to speed up the licensing of frequencies known as white-space devices, with a September target having been set.

Changes on the horizon

T&T’s efforts to move towards a more knowledge-based economy and fully connected society have begun garnering international interest.

Amazon Web Services, a cloud provider and subsidiary of online retailer Amazon, is eyeing T&T as a new market for expansion. Its representatives made a three-day visit to the country in April, during which talks with both the government and businesses were on the agenda.

The state-owned service provider Telecommunications Services of T&T (TSTT) is also working to align its offering with the digital economy, announcing in early May that it had struck a TT$225m ($33.5m) deal with Massy Communications, part of the Massy Group, to buy all of the firm’s shares.

The acquisition will give TSTT ownership of Massy’s existing fibre-to-the-home infrastructure, which comprises more than 900 km of cable connecting approximately 34,000 residences.

Ronald Walcott, CEO of TSTT, said the buyout formed a key part of the firm’s modernisation plans.

“As part of TSTT’s current TT$3.8bn ($564m), five-year strategic plan, we clearly indicated we have one primary mandate and that is to transform TSTT from a legacy 20th-century telecoms provider, to an agile broadband communications company,” he said.  

Digital drive goes regional

T&T should also benefit from a regional drive among CARICOM members to promote electronic cooperation in key areas.

In mid-May government ministers from the bloc approved the Integrated Work Plan for its Single ICT Space – the digital element of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy – at a virtual meeting.

Joseph Cox, assistant secretary-general at CARICOM’s directorate for trade and economic integration, told media the flagship programme would facilitate cooperation in digital management across key areas such as legislation and infrastructure.

“The Single ICT Space work plan provides a guide for issues that the region can work on together – with those that have done some things before helping the ones now embarking on those projects,” he said.