The government of the Bahamas is trying to encourage the use of advanced information and communications technology (ICT) to strengthen the country's economy, by putting more of its own services online.
In his mid-term budget report, delivered on February 24, Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said that the state's ministries, departments and agencies were working to better utilise IT in its daily administrative activities and longer-term planning, operations and revenue generation.
Among the measures listed by the premier as being put in place were the enhanced use of IT by the Customs services – one of the state's biggest income earners; the design and implementation of an electronic information system; and improving the IT and equipment needed to design and install an electronic procurement system.
These and other measures were, Ingraham said, part of an action plan aimed at introducing "results-based management in the public sector of the Bahamas" in order to "further strengthen public expenditure management".
Having taken initial steps as early as the 1990s to establish a form of e-government, giving electronic access to state services, the Bahamas has made significant progress, with most agencies providing at least some of their services online.
Of course, in order to be able to make use of these services, members of the public must have access to the internet, though as of the middle of last year less than half did so. According to a report issued by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), as of mid-2009 the number of internet users in the Bahamas was around 140,000, representing a 46.2% penetration rate, up from 30% in 2006 and some 10 times the 4.3% penetration rate recorded by the ITU in its 2000 study.
While the 2009 figure is more than double the 22% average across the Caribbean region, it is well below the 66% achieved by Barbados or the 76% of Antigua and Barbuda.
In order to get a more up-to-date picture, the government is also seeking information about IT penetration across society, with the forthcoming census to include questions about household access and usage.
The data census, to be carried out in May and into June, will provide socio-demographic data that will be important in the planning and decision-making process for both the private and public sectors, according to Kelsie Dorsett, the director of the Bahamas' Department of Statistics.
Having data on internet and IT usage will give the state an important tool, she told a press conference in mid-February.
"We are getting information about the use of IT and the use of the internet because it is also an indicator of the country's progress," Dorsett said. "We need to know how many have access, how they are using it and where they are using it."
Many of those who do use the internet access it through the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC), the state-owned firm that formerly dominated the communications sector but now faces competition in a number of segments, most notably the internet, voice over internet protocol (VoIP) services and fixed-line.
However, while the Bahamas IT sector is opening up, with more firms entering the industry over the past decade following the easing of restrictions, there have been some complaints that BTC, as the country's sole provider of cellular phone services, is still in a position to have undue influence over the sector.
According to Paul Hutton-Ashkenny, the president of Systems Resource Group (SRG), which under the banner of IndiGO Networks directly competes with BTC in the VoIP segment, because of its cellular monopoly the state firm has absolute control over call origination and termination charges in this sector. This has led to the situation of BTC charging its own subscribers and business units a lower fee than that charged to IndiGO and its customers, Hutton-Ashkenny said.
"Where we have concern is that BTC still has some monopoly pockets, and BTC controls access to calls that originate and terminate in those markets," he said in an interview with local press on February 22. "To the extent that BTC controls that because of its monopoly, they are therefore controlling the price."
Given time, and possibly through the work of the Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority, established in September last year to regulate and oversee the country's electronic communications sector, these pockets may be opened up to other participants, which would promote the deregulation process.