ICT sector playing a key role in diversifying Trinidad and Tobago's economy

As Trinidad and Tobago’s leading telecoms firms roll out new technology, increasing numbers of Trinbagonians are connected to the internet. However, for the economy to take full advantage of the benefits of connectivity, greater uptake of ICT solutions is required from both the private and public sectors. With an economy dominated by the oil industry, T&T has so far been slow to develop local software businesses and train the human talent needed to support ICT. Nevertheless, the sector remains a key focus of attempts to diversify the economy. “We see a lot of potential in the IT sector,” Nirad Tewarie, CEO of the American Chamber of Commerce T&T, told OBG. “There is a concerted effort to develop back office outsourcing, and an existing cluster of software development and animation services, all of which are subsectors with real growth potential.”

Broadband

While data from the Telecommunications Authority of T&T (TATT), the industry regulator, shows that revenues from mobile voice calls have declined in recent years, the demand for mobile data has increased. According to the June 2015 “Ericsson Mobility Report”, by 2020, 86% of mobile data traffic in Latin America and the Caribbean will come from smartphones, and 78% of that data will be transmitted through 4G LTE technology. “Today the mobile sector is all about data, voice calls are of secondary importance,” Rakesh Goswami, executive vice-president of strategic alliance, enterprise and Tobago operations for Telecommunications Services of T&T (TSTT), told OBG. “People use their phones for emails, messaging and voice over internet, and we are seeing far more uploading. Data usage is increasing between four and 10 times each year. The only way we can meet that demand is through fibre.”

Since 2012 T&T’s main telecoms companies have been introducing 4G LTE technology and laying fibre cables to link up their masts. TSTT has put in place over 800 km of fibre, connecting over 400 masts. In November 2013 Caribbean telecoms operator Digicel announced that it would invest TT$100m ($15.4m) to improve its 4G backbone, and in May 2016 Digicel Play – the firm’s fibre and TV service – was aiming to roll out fibre in 50% of Trinidad’s territory by the end of the year, targeting full national coverage in 2017. In September 2015 pan-Caribbean operator Cable and Wireless Communications (CWC) announced that it would revamp its infrastructure to provide 4G LTE connections to 6m customers in the region. In May 2016 CWC was acquired by US TV and broadband firm Liberty Global for approximately $7.4bn. Commenting on the acquisition, Mike Fries, president and CEO of Liberty Global, told media that 20% to 25% of the company’s revenue will be invested in upgrading the quality of networks across the region.

Universal Coverage

As of December 2015 T&T had 279,000 fixed internet subscriptions, a 12% increase year-on-year (y-o-y), and a penetration rate of 65.4%. Although the average revenue per user dropped 4% y-o-y, total revenues from fixed internet services grew 8% over the same time frame. Mobile internet usage also grew considerably. Between December 2014 and December 2015 the total number of pre-paid and post-paid mobile internet subscriptions grew 13% to 64,500.

The government’s goal is to reach universal broadband access, although even with the rollout of new fibre, some areas of the twin-island nation are likely to remain off the grid. TTST has developed a nomadic hotspot system, originally on WiMAX but since converted to 4G LTE, aimed at connecting areas where it is not feasible to run a cable. An estimated 50,000 users in these zones can connect to hotspots using dongles and uptake has been rapid. However, the licensing of 700 MHz bandwidth may be required if T&T is to achieve universal coverage through mobile devices. “700 MHz is the go-to spectrum for broadband data,” says Goswami. “It is the bandwidth with the deep penetration needed to provide full coverage to the country from masts.”

On Track

Even with increasing numbers of Trinbagonians coming online, the country still lags behind in terms of translating connectivity into economic benefits. In November 2013 the previous government announced the smarTT National ICT Plan 2014-20. Although specific targets were not defined, the plan aimed to create “a dynamic knowledge-based society, driven by the innovative use of ICT to enhance the social, economic and cultural development of the people of T&T”. The cornerstones of the policy were increased access to the internet, nurturing ICT talent, and the development of e-business and e-government solutions.

To this end, the development of the single electronic window (SEW) TTBizLink is considered to be one of the key platforms of the e-government push. The SEW is envisaged as a single site where citizens can process a wide range of government-related procedures and processes, from filling in taxes to paying Customs tariffs. The platform was launched in 2012 and has now brought online 46 e-services for business, with the latest addition in April 2016 expanding the e-permits and licences, e-maritime and e-utilities service modules.

In April 2016 T&T signed a deal sealing a $25m loan from the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB) for the continued development of the SEW. Eight ministries are signed up to the SEW: the Ministry of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs; the Ministry of Finance; the Ministry of Trade and Industry; the Ministry of National Security; the Ministry of Works and Transport; the Ministry of Public Utilities; the Ministry of Agriculture; and the Ministry of Health. The IDB loan is to be spent on business process re-engineering for government agencies and the development of an intermodal logistics platform. The bank’s representative for T&T, Tomas Bermudez, told local media, “This loan goes to the heart of two things that are very relevant to T&T. It improves the business environment, or the enabling environment, for business to import and export more efficiently and at a better cost.”

Show Me The Money

Despite these developments, there remains a significant barrier to the implementation of the SEW. While the Electronic Transactions Act (ETA) was passed in April 2011, legislation required to make electronic payments possible in T&T has still not been implemented. Paypal remains the only way to receive online payment in the country and this is limited to those individuals with credit cards. “A lot depends on passing the ETA. Exporters need to receive payments from overseas and entrepreneurs need to grow their businesses,” Simon Aqui, general manager for IBM in T&T, told OBG. “If the government were to start accepting electronic payment, its footprint is so large that it could push many companies to pay online, making huge efficiency gains for the economy.”

Software Adoption

T&T firms have been slow to adopt IT solutions for their businesses. In the World Economic Forum (WEF) “Networked Readiness Index 2015” report, the country ranked 71st out of 148 countries for company-level technological absorption. While the financial sector has adopted IT solutions on the back of government anti-money laundering regulations and requirements to keep back-ups of all financial data, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and, to an extent, major conglomerates, are still well behind the curve in terms of hardware renewal and software adoption. One reason is that relatively low labour costs and a focus on employment have prevented governments and businesses from adopting IT systems that could cut wage bills. Another is that increased digitalisation of accounting is of little attraction to SMEs that prefer to avoid declaring their full revenues. However, integration of software between government, business and suppliers could have major benefits to the economy. “If you look at developed economies like the US, you see that major retail firms use software that is fully integrated with their suppliers,” Aqui told OBG. “That helps firms manage their inventories, schedule deliveries and pay invoices in a single system. That simply doesn’t exist in T&T and is unlikely to happen while electronic payment remains so difficult.”

Talent Show

While international IT firms have encouraged local companies to adopt new software systems that take advantage of the cloud (see analysis), T&T’s own software development potential remains underutilised. Some in the industry have ambitions of positioning T&T as a Bangalore of the Caribbean, developing applications and software for a regional client base. Traditionally, however, IT courses have been less popular with Trinbagonian students than finance and engineering, which offer lucrative careers in the oil industry. Even so, the situation may be changing due to an increased push from higher education institutions. However, innovation and the development of start-up culture has been slow to take root. In the WEF report T&T ranked 105th out of 148 countries for capacity for innovation. “Up to now our graduates have stuck to the big companies. We have seen very few students go into start-ups, and the smaller companies in T&T are primarily focused on software development rather than developing their own applications,” Rodney Rambally, professor at the Centre for ICT at the University of T&T (UTT), told OBG.

The UTT’s response to the talent shortage has been to promote ICT subjects at high schools and publicise the opportunities open to graduates. In addition, students in all programmes receive courses in entrepreneurship. Aqui agrees that T&T has the talent, but promising software developers often find employment with foreign companies. He points to the example of Medullan, a US-based digital health consultancy that uses Trinbagonian programmers to develop its applications. There are other examples. “IBM helped the T&T Inland Revenue Division put new software systems in place with the help of a US partner. Our partner used local software programmers and the US firm now uses the same team to work on similar projects all over the world,” Aqui told OBG.

However, this highlights one of the other challenges facing the sector. Without an established and developed start-up culture, it is difficult to prevent brain drain of the country’s most talented developers. “A number of T&T students study or work in Silicon Valley, but it is very hard to attract them back,” Rambally told OBG.

Pull Together

Data from fDi Intelligence, a data service of the Financial Times, shows that between 2009 and 2015 the communications sector accounted for 15.6% of foreign investment in the Caribbean, behind only tourism as a destination for capital inflows. One of the problems with T&T’s attempts to position itself as a regional Bangalore is that other Caribbean nations are trying to do the same. Jamaica has been quicker than T&T to develop a strong call centre industry and Curaçao has invested heavily in data centres.

Some believe that a more integrated approach could have benefits for the region. Speaking prior to the first Caribbean ICT Collaboration Forum, held in Port of Spain in February 2016, Bernadette Lewis, secretary-general of the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU), told local press that “countries have been working in silos in their pursuit of development, seeking assistance from funding agencies without reference to similar activities being undertaken in other countries. This uncoordinated approach results in fragmentation and wasteful duplication of effort, which does not adequately advance progress as evidenced in a 2013 IMF report which states that Caribbean small states are facing low growth, high debt, significant vulnerabilities and limited resilience to shocks”.

The CTU was established by CARICOM in 1989, and the goal of creating a “single ICT space” is a key feature of the regional organisation’s five-year strategic plan for the period 2015-19. However, finding consensus between member states all competing for foreign investment in business process outsourcing (BPO) services, data centres and software development hubs looks a difficult task in a region suffering an economic downturn and searching for new growth opportunities.

One area where regional collaboration may prove more effective is in tackling cybercrime. In the Organisation of American States’ 2016 “Report on Cybersecurity and Critical Infrastructure in the Americas”, respondents from 20 member states said that data theft, particularly from hackers using phishing tactics, was the number one threat to corporate and government cyber-security. In early 2015 government websites in St Vincent and the Grenadines and the Bahamas were hacked and taken over by Islamist rebel groups from the Middle East. In March 2016 St Lucia hosted a three-day workshop organised by the CTU, which was attended by ministers, the private sector and Interpol representatives. The workshop forms part of a wider initiative to upgrade regional laws and provide training for technical capacity and law enforcement. To date T&T is one of only six member countries to have adopted a cybersecurity strategy, although its Cybercrime Bill of 2015 has been stalled after media groups objected to perceived threats to freedom of speech.

BPO 

In February 2016 management consultants AT Kearney ranked T&T for the first time in its Global Services Location Index. The index, which ranks countries on their financial attractiveness, human talent and overall business environment, is one of the most respected indicators of investment potential in offshore and BPO destinations. T&T came in 42nd out of 55 countries, the highest in CARICOM and one position above its main regional competitor in the space, Jamaica.

The index’s report highlighted the country’s language skills, noting it had one of the largest pools of English-speaking talent in the Western Hemisphere outside of North America, and also praised the technical skills of the people. According to the report, “T&T has successfully built upon its professional services expertise developed over decades in the petroleum sector, to turn that highly skilled workforce and mature education infrastructure towards the broader services field, creating a formidable talent pool in financial services, accounting, law and administration”. However, AT Kearney also made clear its reservations regarding T&T as an outsourcing destination, principally the availability of labour and a lack of BPO experience.

Call Centres

With the oil sector providing generous government revenues and ample employment opportunities over the past two decades, T&T has been slow to develop its BPO potential. In the early 2000s the English-speaking Caribbean region presented a unique opportunity for the US’s rapidly growing offshore call centre industry. In addition to language skills, the Caribbean works in US time zones and can be reached by a short flight. With its larger population and higher unemployment rates, Jamaica has since led the way in attracting international call centre clients, backed by government assistance and incentives. Today the industry employs 10,000 Jamaicans, and in July 2015 Luis Moreno, the US ambassador in Jamaica, said he could see that number triple in the coming years.

However, with less available labour and little government support, the segment has failed to take off in T&T in the same way. DirecOne has a 250-seat centre in Port of Spain serving the national market, and the country’s major telecoms firms maintain their own in-house contact centres. However, in July 2015 US-based iQor took up residence in a new building in the Tamana InTech Park. The $5m investment includes 240 work stations and 69 training stations. By March 2016 the company employed 250 Trinbagonians with the goal of reaching 500 in the first year of operations. The facility will receive inbound customer care calls and social media enquiries for two US telecoms companies. “We started strong with customer care and we anticipate branching into technical support and other higher skill activities,” Bernard St Louis, vice-president of iQor, told OBG.

The slowdown in the T&T economy presents an advantage for the local call centre industry. In the last decade increasing numbers of Trinbagonians have entered tertiary education and a higher degree is an entry requirement for many jobs. St Louis believes that contact centre employment can be an attractive option to those without a degree looking to develop their skills in a professional environment supporting global brands. Those seeking to build their CV and earn extra cash during schooling are also prime candidates. The customer service industry might help diversify the T&T economy and serve as a bulwark if the economy slows more. “We are in a unique position as our business demand is not dependent on the local economy,” St Louis told OBG. “If the economy shrinks, we hope a career in customer service can be an attractive employment option for many looking to build skills for success while increasing the vitality of our local economy.”

Outlook

With falling oil revenues, the government has been forced to cut spending and prioritise its investments. Fortunately, the development of the SEW, which could have a key role to play in pushing companies to adopt ICT solutions, looks set to continue thanks to support from the IDB. The development of the ICT sector is also dependent on the political capital the government can leverage to implement key legislation such as the ETA. The country has the infrastructure and the workforce to develop local software and BPO industries, it is now the government’s task to create the enabling environment for the industry to grow and succeed.

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The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2016

Telecoms & IT chapter from The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2016

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