Jamaica and the Internet: where are we now?
On Wednesday, April 15, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published the 2015 edition of the Global Information Technology Report (GITR), which features the latest iteration of the Networked Readiness Index. This assesses the factors, policies and institutions that enable a country to fully leverage information and communication technologies (ICT) for increased competitiveness and well-being.
The report highlighted the importance and impact of ICT as a vector of social development and transformation by improving access to basic services, enhancing connectivity and creating employment. The report presented a generally positive view of the growth of Jamaica's technology infrastructure and was critical about its use of technology for social and economic development. The results of the report suggest that mostly rich countries have benefited from the ICT revolution and, paradoxically but unsurprisingly, it has created new digital divides.
Despite these results, Jamaica's ranking has improved with a new high of 82nd of 143 countries versus 85th in 2013 and 86th in 2014. Two areas for which the country received high ranking were 1) availability of new technologies (43rd of 143 countries) and 2) the quality of management schools (57th of 143 countries). Regardless of these improvements, Jamaica is considered among those developing and emerging countries that are failing to exploit ICT to drive economic and social transformation.
In the latter half of 2014, the College of Business and Management (COBAM) at the University of Technology (UTech), Jamaica conducted a national study on ICT Access and Use by Households and Individuals, which adds additional perspective to the GITR.
The results of the COBAM study indicate a confluence of changes taking place in Jamaica's ICT landscape and the country in general that augur well for growth and development. These indices include a high rate (91 per cent) of individuals with access to cellular phones and 35 per cent with mobile broadband. The 91 per cent mobile penetration rate is a measurement of mobile use and not subscription, which is the matrix commonly used. Subscription rate will exceed 100 per cent; however, the proportion of persons who use a mobile phone will not exceed 100 per cent.
The Government has included community access points (CAPs) as a central part of its strategy under its universal service obligation. The Universal Service Fund (USF), in collaboration with community-based organisations, establishes CAPs where residents can access the Internet at minimal or no cost. The cost of establishing these CAPs is approximately $3.4m each, with 211 completed, 42 in progress and an additional 182 proposals pending. The total cost of implementation is approximately $700 million.
These CAPs are, however, underutilised, as the survey suggests that only six per cent of the sample uses them. The Internet is primarily used at home, approximately 39 per cent, followed by work, 13 per cent. What is instructive is that more persons use commercial Internet facilities than CAPs (11 per cent). From a policy perspective, the Government needs to investigate the factors contributing to the low usage.
The results further indicate that the proportion of households with Internet access was 40 per cent in 2014, while usage was approximately 50 per cent. The intensity of Internet usage is favourable, with approximately 45 per cent of users accessing the Internet at least once per day. The proportion of households reporting that they had a computer was 37 per cent. This number is expected to increase further, as the Tablet in Schools Programme was not in effect at the time of the survey.
While Internet usage has increased, the sophistication of use is low. Forty-five per cent of the respondents use the Internet primarily for social-network services, Twitter, Facebook, etc.; and 31 per cent use it for leisure activities; and another 10 per cent for educational purposes. The more sophisticated and direct commercial uses such as Internet banking, purchasing of goods and e-government are four per cent, eight per cent, and six per cent, respectively.
There is, however, a substantial urban-rural divide in Internet access and use. The 2011 census showed that 54 per cent of the population lived in urban areas and 46 per cent in rural areas. The results of the survey indicated that of households having Internet access, 64 per cent were from urban areas and 36 per cent from rural; a 28 per cent differential. The survey further showed that there are more females using computers than males; however, the gender gap is negligible, with 572, or 52 per cent, females, and 533, or 48 per cent, males - a four percentage-point differential.
These findings by themselves, though important, may seem innocuous. However, there is a confluence of other developments that are noteworthy and are likely to positively influence growth. These include, inter alia:
- the rollout of the Tablet in Schools Programme;
- the installation of a local Internet exchange point (IXP);
- the signing of an agreement with USA for the use of Television White Spaces (TVWS) to provide wireless data connectivity to remote communities;
- the increased usage of retail payment systems, according to data from the Bank of Jamaica;
- the 2014 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) Report, indicating that Jamaica has improved from a factor-driven to an efficiency-driven economy;
- a significant improvement in Jamaica's ranking from 85 to 58, according to the World Bank's Doing Business Report;
- and an increasing proportion of the population in the working-age group - a favourable demographic condition for potential economic growth.
PUTTING THINGS NTO CONTEXT
These positive developments should be tempered by other areas of concern that include the lack of sophistication in the use of the Internet and the intractable urban-rural divide. These results should also be examined in the context of the astonishing progress in the use of digital technologies.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2014) estimate that in the next 24 months, the planet will add more computer power than it did in all previous history, and in the next 24 years, the increase will likely be over a thousandfold.
As technological progress accelerates, especially in the developed countries, it is also accelerating deep inequalities between countries and creating a wave of economic refugees.
These findings from the COBAM study support and add depth to the GITR conclusions. It also identifies opportunities for growth for both public and private sector, especially in
e-government and e-banking; and a rethinking of the community access point strategy. Despite Jamaica's limited resources, we can't afford to be too far behind.