Trinidad and Tobago is a regional ICT leader, but authorities and businesses challenge the status quo

 

Successive Trinidad and Tobago governments have recognised the potential of the internet and the ICT sector more broadly to provide efficiency gains to business and public sector processes.

In November 2013 the People’s Partnership government announced the National ICT Plan 2014-20, which had the objective of creating “a dynamic knowledge-based society, driven by innovative use of ICT to enhance the social, economic and cultural development of the people of T&T”.

In perhaps the most important element of ICT policy – access to broadband internet – the country is a regional leader, with an estimated 80% of Trinbagonians having online access at competitive prices. Strong government policy-making and aggressive private sector investment have been key to putting the necessary infrastructure in place.

However, much more needs to be done to increase business uptake of technology, improve e-government and e-payment regulations, and develop a strong pool of domestic ICT talent capable of developing critical local content and software. If these objectives are met, the sector could not only provide productivity gains to the country’s main industries, but also become an important source of growth and diversification to the national economy.

Status Quo

In the “Global Information Technology Report 2016” produced by the World Economic Forum’s (WEF), which measures the network readiness of a total of 143 countries, T&T improved its score from 4 to 4.1 and rose to 67th place compared to 70th in the previous year’s study.

As of May 2017 the People’s National Movement (PNM) government had not released a new ICT strategy plan, however, the sector did feature prominently in the 2016/17 budget speech given by Colm Imberts, the minister of finance, which restated the government’s commitment to providing free and easy access to public broadband, the establishment of an overarching IT in education policy and a 7% tax on online purchases abroad.

In March 2017, at a Port of Spain forum on the topic of standardisation of CARICOM ICT policies, Prime Minister Keith Rowley emphasised the great importance of computer and internet literacy. “High on our agenda is enhancing digital literacy and developing the skills to enable productivity and innovation for our population,” he told local press. “Ultimately, the ICT sector is expected to enhance the quality of life of our people. So while we invest in networks, infrastructure and markets, we also have to invest in human beings. An e-ready country necessitates that ICT’s must be seen as tools to be used in all aspects of social, educational and business life.”

Infrastructure

The Caribbean poses particular challenges for internet connectivity. The small islands that make up the region are scattered over 2.75m sq km, meaning that hooking them up to the fibre backbone is expensive given limited population sizes. However, infrastructure is an area in which T&T scores highly in the WEF report, ranking 53rd for internet bandwidth, 51st for secure internet servers and 16th for affordability of fixed-internet tariffs.

Most nations have two independent submarine cable systems, but T&T is a regional leader with five, second only to Curaçao, which has six. As with Jamaica, T&T’s relatively large population makes it an attractive anchor point for cable, and its high GDP per capita and internet penetration means its traffic is higher than most of its neighbours.

Of the five cables connecting T&T, US-based Cable & Wireless has a stake in three – Americas-II, Eastern Caribbean Fibre System and ECL ink – while Digicel owns the Southern Caribbean Fibre, and the fifth, the Suriname-Guyana Submarine Cable System, owned by the Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company. A sixth submarine fibre cable linking the north-eastern city of Toco to Milford in Tobago went on-line in August 2012 following an TT$18.5m ($2.8m) investment from Blink/bmobile.

The country also has its own internet exchange point, the T&T Internet Exchange in Barataria, which keeps internet traffic local, reducing costs and allowing sensitive content to be hosted without crossing borders. As a result, T&T’s internet users can enjoy some of the fastest transmission speeds in the Caribbean, with an average download speed of more than 14 Mbps and an upload speed of just under 4 Mbps.

Broadband

Given its well-developed infrastructure, broadband dominates the fixed-income subscription market with a 99.5% share of total subscriptions, with narrowband making up only 0.5%. However, following years of strong growth, broadband subscriptions appeared to have plateaued in 2016. From 2011 to 2015 the number of fixed-internet subscriptions in T&T rose from 192,000 to 279,800, but having hit a peak of 290,000 in the second quarter of 2016, the figure fell to 255,000 by December of that year.

Around two-thirds of T&T households have fixed internet, while in 2015, 16,700 subscriptions were registered to local businesses. According to the US-based Internet Society’s, February 2017 report entitled “Unleashing the Internet in the Caribbean, Removing Barriers to Connectivity and Stimulating Better Access in the Region”, internet penetration in T&T is second only to Barbados in the 11 Caribbean markets studied. One reason for this success is the relatively high wages paid in the country compared to its peers. A fixed broadband subscription in T&T costs around only 1.2% of average monthly income, compared to 6.5% in Jamaica.

Public Wi-Fi

The Internet Society’s report also commends the comprehensive plans made by T&T and Barbados to roll out public Wi-Fi projects. In November 2011 Freundel Stuart, the prime minister of Barbados, announced the goal of providing ubiquitous access “from bus stop to rum stop”, establishing over 100 free, public Wi-Fi zones by 2013. In T&T the PNM’s pre-election manifesto included a pledge to establish free public internet access under the T&T Wi-Fi initiative. As of May 2017 the project had rolled out Wi-Fi on 12 public buses in Trinidad and one in Tobago, allowing customers to visit government websites, connect to social media accounts and email providers, and use instant messaging applications.

GOING MOBILE: There are two possible reasons for the stagnation of fixed-broadband hook-ups in T&T over the course of 2016. The first is that slowing economic growth has pushed a number of customers to cancel their packages. More likely, however, is that mobile broadband is increasing in quality and competitiveness across the country, thereby diminishing demand for fixed line.

Between 2011 and December 2016 the mobile internet penetration rate grew from 14.6% to 52.2%. A more detailed breakdown of these figures – available only for December 2015 – shows that prepaid mobile internet services dominate T&T, with 467,700 prepaid contracts in place compared to 177,700 post-paid mobile internet subscriptions. Narrowband mobile subscriptions held relatively steady between 2013 and 2015, declining from 215,000 to 211,000. Mobile broadband, however, shot up from 236,000 subscribers to 434,000 over the same period. Increased competition between mobile operators has led to a steady drop in prices and new technological developments — such as over-the-top (OTT) services, including WhatsApp and Skype, and the introduction of zero-rating packages, whereby the use of certain mobile applications does not count against their data consumption — have made mobile internet increasingly attractive for consumers.

Across the Caribbean region mobile broadband is increasingly dominant. In the 11 countries sampled in the Internet Society’s report, there were an average of 133 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. A 2015 report by Sweden’s Ericsson forecasts that by 2020, 86% of mobile data traffic will come from smartphones and that 78% of that data will be transmitted using 4G LTE technology.

Uptake

However, T&T scores less lower in the 2016 WEF report for business usage of ICT. Here T&T ranked 69th out of 143 countries for firm-level technology absorption, 106th for capacity for innovation, 84th for ICT use for business-to-business transactions and 85th for business-to-consumer internet use. While software adaptation has been strong in the banking sector and among the major national conglomerates – especially following the introduction of anti-money laundering legislation – small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have proved more resistant to investing in IT solutions. The challenge for suppliers is to identify and address the specific needs of local SMEs.

“A few years ago there was so much liquidity in T&T that it was simple for ICT providers to simply sell their products to the market,” Eddy Devisse, a Port of Spain-based ICT consultant, told OBG. “However, that situation has changed. Companies now have multiple channels to buy the hardware and software they need; like in the rest of the world, these have become commodities. What they require are business solutions to local problems, mainly relating to human resources and productivity. We see a big demand for applications dealing with data analytics, automation and remote monitoring.” The government is aware of the situation. In August 2016 at a conference and trade exhibition held in Puerto Rico, Maxie Cuffie, minister of public administration and communications, told the attendees that the private sector needed to invest in developing ICT solutions specific to the Caribbean market rather than offering solutions designed in developed countries.

Education

The biggest challenge to developing a more dynamic domestic IT sector, however, is the availability of local talent. Careers in ICT are overlooked by many promising T&T graduates, because oil dominates the economy in T&T. “Many of our students enter the programme as a second choice, having missed out on programmes in engineering, medicine and law,” Permanand Mohan, head of the Computing and Information Technology Department at the University of West Indies (UWI), told OBG. “There is still a lack of awareness of the excellent career and salary prospects for computer science and IT graduates, although that is slowly changing.”

Most university graduates in T&T look for work at one of the country’s major corporations, usually in the oil, finance or multinational IT firms. At this stage in the sector’s development the start-up scene for innovative applications and ICT solutions is limited. “We have seen a huge brain drain,” Devisse told OBG. “Qualified ICT professionals either go to work for big businesses in T&T or abroad, or they become consultants and have busy schedules. The country has a very low number of qualified IT staff per capita and that means, far from being a centre for software development or regional ICT solutions, we have to outsource resources from abroad. Fortunately the government and education institutions have recognised this and are taking bold steps to turn it around with the support of the business community.”

In addition, many students hired by big companies can find that their skills are not best utilised. “We see a mismatch between supply and demand,” Mohan told OBG. “The employer expects to hire fresh graduates who have all the skills to work the particular software they operate on. In reality, students have been trained in theoretical aspects, which makes them adaptable to different systems, but means they often need a few months to get up to speed with the operating software. Once they have the skills we also see a lot of poaching of IT talent between big firms.”

In Imbert’s 2016/17 budget speech, the lack of long-term planning in the country’s ICT education segment was highlighted. He pointed out that the TT$310m($46.3m) spent on free laptops for school children had reaped few benefits in the absence of an overarching ICT education strategy. Although the PNM’s strategy had yet to be announced as of May 2017, efforts have been made to improve ICT skills and boost the image of computer science programmes. In November 2016 the Ministry of Planning and Development hosted a two-day training course for students of UWI St Augustine, the University of Trinidad & Tobago (UTT) and the College of Science Technology and Applied Arts of T&T. The first day of the course was aimed at boosting admissions numbers and improving key skills, while the second included workshops with local entrepreneurs to understand how ICT was changing the business landscape in the country.

Data Centres

Since the establishment of the country’s first major data centre in Barataria in 2009, demand for data centres in T&T has grown and government and businesses seeking to store potentially sensitive data within territorial borders. Even Tobago, which has its own local government, wants to keep information within its territory.

In January 2017 construction began on a Tier-3 data centre at the Cove Eco-Industrial and Business Park managed by the Eco-Industrial Development Company of Tobago (E-IDCOT). The centre – a 75:25 partnership between Telecommunications Services of T&T (TSTT) and E-IDCOT – will offer storage, back-up and disaster recovery services to the island upon completion in June 2018.

Although the Barataria centre was built by Fujitsu, TSTT and Digicel have led the way in developing the local data centre industry. In 2015 Digicel opened a 200-rack centre – the largest in the country – and in September 2016 TTST received full certification as a Tier-3 data services provider, following training and auditing from EPI LatAm, a registered certifying body. “There is a growing demand for high-end data services locally and internationally and this is part of TSTT’s strategic plan to transform itself into an agile, broadband communications company that is responsive to its customers’ needs,” Rolph Young, senior manager of enterprise marketing at TSTT, told local media. “A simple 20-rack data centre can cost over TT$30m ($4.5m) just to build it, and there is the additional cost to have it audited and certified.” 

The growth of cloud computing could depend on the availability of in-country data centres. “Cloud is an interesting story because data sovereignty is an important topic on Caribbean islands,” Devisse told OBG. “The government is required by law to keep data within its borders, but in the case of the private sector the decision to keep data where they can see it is driven more by fear of the reach of the US government’s Patriot Act. However, I think companies are beginning to understand that this fear is irrational and we have started seeing growth in uptake of cloud solutions.”

Tech Parks

In December 2016 Paula Gopee-Scoon, minister of trade and industry, informed an EU trade delegation of the completion of the first phase of the Tamana InTech Park a TT$1.1bn ($164.4m) business park in Wallerfield, east of Port of Spain, with a focus on attracting tenants from the ICT, innovation, animation and high-value manufacturing industries. At present, the park has a single private sector tenant — iQor, a call centre and business process outsourcing firm — and 20 available lots for interested companies. In the same park, but part of a separate project, the UTT has spent TT$1.2bn ($179.3m) to build a new main campus. By January 2017 the project was three-quarters complete, with the university set to take up residency in June 2017.

Cybersecurity

The topic of cybersecurity and efforts to protect government, companies and the public from cybercrime have become more prominent in recent years following a spate of attacks in the region. With relatively weak security in place, Caribbean governments are seen as being particularly at risk from attack. Indeed, in early 2015 government websites in St Vincent, the Grenadines and the Bahamas were hacked by an Islamist group. CARICOM countries are now taking measures to shore up their online defences. In June 2016 T&T played host to a cybersecurity and crisis response workshop organised by the Global Crisis Response Support Programme, a two-year programme financed by the EU. Representatives from the T&T Defence Force and the Ministry of National Security of T&T attended the workshop along with representatives of other CARICOM nations. As well as boosting early warning capacities for cybercrime the event aimed to increase cooperation between crisis response centres in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In September and October 2016 T&T marked National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, an international event which seeks to ensure all digital citizens have the resources needed to stay safe online while also protecting their personal information. Local firm ICT Expertz was named Champion in T&T for its work in the field. The firm hosted several free cybersecurity awareness events in communities and schools throughout the month of October 2016.

“There is a primary challenge on the demand side of the ICT sector. New legislations need to be developed, together with the strengthening of existing legislation. This includes the Exchequer and Audit Act, the Data Protection Act and the E-Transactions Act,” John Prince, CEO of TSTT, told OBG.

In 2012 the government of T&T introduced its first cybersecurity strategy, calling for the creation of the T&T Cyber Security Agency (TTCSA) and a national incident response team, as well as the promotion of greater collaboration between the private sector and civil society and efforts to raise awareness on cybersecurity throughout the country. In May 2015 the TTCSA Bill – to set up the TTSCA and the response team – was put to Parliament, alongside a cybercrime bill aimed to adjust the penalties for online offences. In 2017 an amended version of the bill was presented for debate including clauses to make it an offence to share sensitive personal pictures and videos without consent and to criminalise the sending of spam and phishing emails. On presenting the bill to Parliament Faris Al Rawi, the country’s attorney general, told media “It is a very robust piece of law on which there has been a significant amount of consultation, and I believe it is in the right zone of operations.”

Outlook

The PNM government has made some positive strides in terms of developing the domestic ICT industry. Recognising that education – both in terms of general digital literacy and in advanced training – is the necessary first step towards building up the sector, the government has focused on drafting a five-year ICT in education strategy, which should be published in 2017 or early 2018. For the sector to grow it will be critical to develop adequate human resource talent; only then can it develop locally created software solutions for domestic or regional use. The current onus on the government is to pass legislation in the e-payments field in order to boost the efficiency of public sector ICT usage.

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The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2017

ICT chapter from The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2017

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