Trinidad and Tobago's government aims to make IT a key contributor to GDP

The government of Trinidad and Tobago announced an ICT development plan for 2014-18, known as smarTT, in November 2013. Prior to the programme’s launch, the minister of science and technology, Rupert Griffith, stressed the contribution that the sector could make to T&T’s development.

“The plan seeks to leverage ICT to encourage growth and transform our country,” he said. “It stands out as a remarkable tool with major potential benefits.” Griffith emphasised the contribution that ICT could make to education by offering distance learning and online tuition, and to business by allowing for more efficient, innovative and productive use of resources by entrepreneurs.

ICT Plan 2014-18

The smarTT plan articulated the country’s vision of seeking 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 programme envisaged at least two further development plans, for 2018-22 and for 2022-26. The ultimate goal is for the ICT sector to become a significant contributor to GDP in its own right, although no specific target was set. Five major themes were outlined: innovation and human capital development; access and digital inclusion; e-business and ICT development; infrastructure development; and e-government. Although the plan did not highlight any big headline quantitative targets and objectives, it did lay out a series of outputs and milestones. One was identified as implementing the regulatory framework for electronic transactions “by the end of fiscal year 2015”. Another was to have a database of government documents that was fully functional by the same date.

New Initiatives

A range of new initiatives include TTC onnect, a project that allows citizens to access more government services online, and iGovTT, an agency entrusted with improving overall ICT readiness. TTBizLink, meanwhile, is a portal for business services. The progress of the various projects is dependent on the availability of funds, and in early 2015 Griffith acknowledged that a number of cutbacks were being prepared in light of the effect of lower oil prices on the government’s budget.

The Academic Perspestive

From an academic perspective, Rodney Rambally, professor at the Centre for ICT at the University of T&T (UTT), welcomed the activities of agencies such as iGovTT. “They have been effectively applying ICT to the economic development of the country and have been improving electronic interactions between the citizenry and government agencies,” Rambally told OBG. “For example, The Board of Inland Revenue has now provided fillable T4 forms. This has eliminated the need to mail out these forms to people.”

Rambally cited another example, the Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses programme, which funds the fees of students in national universities. “They have developed an application that allows them to track students accurately throughout their university careers, and in particular to record their exam results and progress through the courses in a precise and timely fashion. Students who fail to pass certain exams are required to fund the repeat courses themselves.” Rambally’s overall view on ICT is that in both the government and private sectors, significant advances have been made. However, Rambally also noted that T&T now has the necessary local skills to undertake the implementation and the coding. “We have the graduates. The University of the West Indies and ourselves can now supply the workforce necessary for that kind of development.” A CARIBBEAN BANGALORE?: Rambally’s aim is to see ICT developing as an important service sector industry, and a form of business diversification away from the core oil and gas economy.

“We could become a Caribbean version of Bangalore,” he told OBG. “The government of Panama, or global oil companies like BP and BHP, might approach UTT and ask for help in building large IT systems and applications.” While he believed there was now a network of developers capable of doing the coding and implementation for such large projects, what is still lacking are the higher end design and development skills. Within UTT, Rambally is hoping to build up those skills through teaching and other exchange programmes with universities such as the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore and the Indian Institute of Technology.

Regional Hub

The government is certainly interested in the idea of building up an ICT regional hub. In August 2014 the minister of planning and sustainable development, Bhoendradatt Tewarie, said that the government had signed a $20m loan agreement with the Interamerican Development Bank to fund development work on a global services platform in association with ZonaAmérica, Uruguay’s ICT export hub. “The idea is that T&T will be a global hub for the provision for information technology-enabled services, which will mean increased investments, increased exports and increased employment in the sector,” Tewarie said.

Areas to be explored would include legal process outsourcing, financial and accounting outsourcing, and contact centre outsourcing. In Tewarie’s view, the country is well placed for such a role. “We are well prepared with human capital and the flow of university graduates is steady. We are ranked 71 out of 148 countries in the Networked Readiness Index 2014, and in the World Economic Forum data, we are 37th out of 138 countries in terms of the quality of our education,” said Tewarie. “Our main problem was always how we diversify away from reliance on energy, which is so strong in our economy. So we want industries that provide good-quality, better-paying jobs for our population.”

How best to build up the country’s ICT industry capabilities is a much-discussed subject. While many see an opportunity for innovative start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises in this process, there are problems in matching up the scale of potential contractors and opportunities. Smaller local companies may find it difficult to win tenders against competition from larger international players.

ITU Ranking

In 2008-9 the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) developed a composite index, known as the ICT Development Index (IDI), which is designed to “monitor and compare developments in ICT across countries”.

The IDI tracks a total of 11 indicators divided into three sub-groups. The ICT access sub-index focuses on fixed and mobile telephone penetration, internet bandwidth per user, percentage of households with a computer and percentage of households with internet access. The ICT use sub-index tracks internet penetration and fixed and wireless broadband subscriptions. Finally, the ICT skills sub-index tracks the literacy rate, as well as secondary and tertiary education enrolment ratios.

All three are combined into a single IDI on a scale of zero to 10. In its 2014 report, the ITU compiled IDI results for 166 countries on 2013 data, with the highest score achieved by Denmark (8.86) and the lowest by the Central African Republic (0.96).

In 2013 T&T achieved an IDI score of 5.29, up from 4.99 the previous year. The country also rose three places in the global ranking, to 67th in 2013, from 70th in 2012. In relation to its Caribbean peers, in 2013 T&T was ranked behind Barbados (35th), St Kitts and Nevis (54th), and Antigua and Barbuda (57th). However, it was ahead of St Vincent and the Grenadines (72nd), Grenada (76th), St Lucia (79th) and Dominica (83rd). Jamaica was ranked 97th and Suriname 98th. Looking at the three sub-components, on IDI access the country was ranked 66th with a score of 6.36; 65th on IDI use with a score of 3.60; and 106th on IDI skills with a score of 6.54. Within the Americas as a region T&T was ranked 11th. On other indicators the country is ahead of the average – for example, mobile phone penetration is significantly above the Americas average of 107%.

Commenting on the results in the local press, Michele Marius, a Caribbean ICT specialist and editor of ICT Pulse, noted that, as a group, the Caribbean countries performed relatively well on matters related to telecoms infrastructure and education.

However, she also said that “the region appears to be challenged with regard to ICT readiness, based on the actual use of the internet and take-up of both wired and wireless broadband subscription densities. Caribbean countries have still not established the necessary systems to facilitate better use of technology by their citizens.”

Presence of Global IT Companies

For major ICT companies, T&T is an attractive regional market. Jean-Paul Dookie, an executive for Fujitsu’s Central American and Caribbean region, told OBG, “T&T is a stable economy, and it has a good balance between the public and private sectors. We have forged good partnerships. The fact that the country is a strong hydrocarbons producer also helps.”

Dookie acknowledged that the downturn in global oil prices could have a ripple effect, leading to cutbacks in government spending and then to lower demand from the private sector.

“The public and private sectors need to work together to come through any hard times. T&T is well placed. It has liberalised the telecoms sector, and offers access to a decent pool of labour coming out of the universities,” Dookie told OBG. “However, it is not just about getting technical people with a good academic background: Trinbagonians’ creativity and ability to multitask are also very important.”

Reflecting a wider pattern in the ICT sector, Fujitsu is shifting focus from selling hardware to large enterprise customers towards delivering technology and services as a bundled managed service, including cloud-based systems and ICT services on demand.

Government ICT Contracts

Fujitsu and other companies have been seeking contracts to help integrate government ICT systems, moving towards the centralisation of shared functions, like email, and collaboration services.

To win such contracts, private sector service providers need to guarantee the reliability and integrity of the government’s data. In Fujitsu’s case this has been done by building a Tier 3 data centre (Tier 3 refers to the degree of reliability and integrity with which information is hosted).

TTIX

In October 2014 a new internet exchange point (IXP) was launched in T&T. IXPs are physical hubs which allow internet service providers (ISPs) to exchange data traffic between their networks more efficiently, reducing average per-bit delivery costs. The facility, known as TTIX, is a collaborative venture between seven local ISPs, including TSTT, Digicel, Massy Communications, Open Telecom, Greendot, Lisa Communications and Flow (Columbus). It is located at the Fujitsu data centre in Barataria.

The chairman of TTIX, Kurleigh Prescod of Columbus Communications, told the local press that the facility would “act as an incentive to attract content providers, such as Netflix, Akamai and Google, to establish a point of presence in T&T”. There are around 350 IXPs around the world, and TTIX is the ninth to be set up in the Caribbean. Dookie described it as “an essential building block towards the development of the T&T knowledge economy”.

Caribbean Dimension

One of the interesting questions is whether or not the economies of scale that can be captured from the development and deepening of ICT services are best captured on a national or on a pan-Caribbean basis. As one of the countries leading ICT development, T&T might be well-placed to help forge a wider regional platform.

At official level, some form of regional ICT integration is judged desirable, at least in principle. In February 2015, Irwin LaRocque, the secretary-general of CARICOM, said that the Caribbean Telecommunications Union could potentially play a key role in the integration architecture.

According to LaRocque, ICT is “a crucial element in not only resolving our present challenges, but also in building the platform for our growth and development”. The creation of a “single ICT space” was at the heart of CARICOM’s Five-Year Strategic Plan 2015-19, approved by the organisation’s Heads of Government meeting in July 2014.

Integration

“The implementation of the plan will require the most efficient and effective use of all the region’s resources,” LaRocque said. “It has always been my view that the specialised institutions developed by this community – of which the Caribbean Telecommunications Union is one – must use their unique skills to serve a common purpose – namely the integration of our region to improve the quality of the life of our people.”

Platform for Success

T&T’s pioneering development of e-government services (see analysis) could in principle be shared across the Caribbean. “By extension there is an ultimate vision of a series of government-to-government collaborative services across the Caribbean,” Dookie told OBG. “The countries could have common shared platforms for emails and collaboration. Using compatible platforms could deliver savings.”

Griffith said that T&T was encouraging regional ICT collaboration. One example of this was the adoption of international exchange protocols, allowing high-speed data transfers within the Caribbean to take place more efficiently. Griffith noted that legislative changes would be required to facilitate greater ICT integration, covering issues such as the use of cloud technology, cyber crime, and protocols for electronic payments. “We are working on electronic payments among government services,” he said. “We are hoping that we will soon have electronic e-payments on-stream with the intended legislation and all the procedures in place.”

Outlook

T&T is in a strong position to take advantage of its relatively high living standards and education levels to develop as an ICT hub. Government initiatives, although not always fully coordinated, are also helping the country to move forward in this area. However, partly because of the upcoming elections and the expected change of administration, 2015 is likely to be a year of transition.

Reduced government revenues resulting from the fall in oil prices may also have an impact on some of the ICT development programmes that are currently under way. Perhaps offsetting that, the price slump may increase the sense of urgency with which both the public and private sectors approach the issue of diversification away from energy and into ICT.

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The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2015

Telecoms & IT chapter from The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2015

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