Caribbean Regional Communications Infrastructure Program – Caribbean Telecommunications Union Project (First Phase)
Recognizing the many challenges impacting the ICT sector in the Caribbean such as highly fragmented markets and uneven distribution of resources, the International Development Association of the World Bank approached the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU) to coordinate the Caribbean Regional Communications Infrastructure Program (CARCIP). CARCIP is designed to support the regional approach through the development of a holistic ICT-enabled development framework, strongly anchored in CARICOM’s regional ICT agenda. Because of its regionally harmonized programmatic design, CARCIP is capable of providing maximum flexibility to the region, which allows countries to join the program individually, on a need and readiness basis, and to start with a core set of activities tailored to their particular needs but fitting into the broader regional strategy.
CARCIP provides a holistic approach for the Region and provides targeted solutions for the countries to benefit from the developmental and transformational potential of ICT. CARCIP facilitates public private-partnership opportunities for the CARIFORUM region to bridge the remaining gaps in regional and domestic broadband communications infrastructure, including the gaps in submarine cable infrastructure and landing stations, domestic backbone networks, cross-border links and national and regional internet exchange points (IXPs).
Additionally, CARCIP aims to create an enabling environment that leverages this regional and domestic infrastructure to foster employment and economic growth. This includes the support of policies and regulatory frameworks to further increase competition into the markets, as well as support to develop innovative regional IT and ITES industries, e-services, m-services and other applications by the private sector and e-government and m-government services. Specific skills development programs will target women and youth to improve employability and bridge the gender gap in access to and use of ICT. Finally, CARCIP aims at supporting institutional development and capacity building that enhances the effectiveness of the regional institutional ICT framework.
The Program comprises of ICT Projects implemented in each of the participating countries and also at a regional level by support agencies. Currently, three countries are participating in the First Phase of CARCIP, namely, Grenada, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The two regional institutions that supported CARCIP are the CTU and the Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (ECTEL).
Imagine disaster early warning systems using the latest tools offered by artificial intelligence and augmented reality. Imagine tourists having ubiquitous access to 1 Gigabit secure wireless hotspots. Imagine students engaged real time in data analytics with environmental scientists across the world via advanced networks. These are just a few examples of the leapfrogging possibilities that three Caribbean islands signed up for under CARCIP.
The three small island states of Grenada, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have just punched their tickets to the future. With financial assistance from the World Bank and technical support from the CTU, the participating countries have started the development of a future-proofed broadband infrastructure to be implemented by Digicel that will connect homes, schools, government offices, and businesses to each other and the rest of the world by 2020.
In July 2019, the three countries signed contracts with Digicel for the construction of new Government Wide Area Networks (GWANs), educational networks for schools, libraries, and community centers; and a new submarine cable connecting Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Grenada. These contracts were made possible through the Caribbean Regional Communications Infrastructure Program (CARCIP) with the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU) as coordinator.
Leap Frogging into Digital Transformation
So how far of a leap is this? When CARCIP was initiated, telecommunications were plagued by low bandwidth, high prices, and poor service quality due to a reliance on legacy copper networks. There were also several large coverage gaps. Governments were often paying high prices for obsolete services and equipment, and citizens had to deal with substandard services and limited access to global networks.
Schools in Grenada and Saint Lucia had serious network capacity problems. Many had limited Internet connection to support up to a thousand students. Weak connections made the service so slow that it was generally unusable. In addition, the existing mobile carriers did not have sufficient capacity to offer 4G mobile services, the building block for e-Education initiatives in most countries.
The Grenadines were becoming uncompetitive in the tourism industry due to slow speed Internet services. Residents also faced a severe “digital divide”.
An undersea fiber optic cable could create the connectivity needed for technological leapfrogging, providing higher capacity connections. This submarine fiber is also essential to connect critical government buildings in Carriacou (such as customs offices and health clinics) and to deliver improved Internet services to schools and community centers.
The three governments recognized that an advanced, safe, affordable, and reliable digital infrastructure was essential for economic growth, and opted for a complete fiber optic makeover of GWANs, with a special focus on adequate Internet services to the education community.
A new fiber optic network will better connect 3 Caribbean islands: Saint-Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Grenada.
Infrastructure for the future
Fiber optic connectivity to Carriacou and outlying Grenadines islands will introduce modern telecommunications services for the first time, enabling affordable Internet services.
More than 500 government buildings will be connected, an advanced data center will be installed in Grenada and Saint Lucia, and approximately 300 schools will have access to high-speed Internet. Security will be ensured, as contracts include technology updates.
But building the digital economy is not just about providing connectivity. CARCIP focused first on creating an updated policy and regulatory environment managed by the CTU and the regional regulatory authority, ECTEL. The program also includes skills development for women and youth employability and digital entrepreneurship. Digicel will simultaneously roll out advanced networks to provide a broad range of services, including high speed broadband.
Innovative approaches demand time and effort
The innovative contracting process and resulting PPP (Public Private Partnership) structure, coordinated by the CTU under CARCIP, is a first for digital infrastructure in the region. It is also the first of this magnitude, requiring approximately US$45 million from governments and private partners.
This is possibly the first joint tender by three countries for such wide-ranging infrastructure, including both new construction, then transferred upfront to the governments, and service provision over a 15-year service period.
The unique contracting approach allowed all three governments to obtain substantial economies of scale, allowing lower pricing and better quality of service than if they had purchased the networks separately. In addition, governments will own the GWAN networks upon completion and have guaranteed access to large amounts of capacity.
This approach provided significant gains, but included risks: the three governments had no experience with PPPs, nor with complex digital infrastructure contracts. So how was it put together? There are five key success factors:
· Leadership provided at the regional level by the CTU and the three CARCIP participating countries.
· Vision and passion to make this very complex project happen.
· Collaboration and partnership to address both technical and PPP sides of the project.
· Support from the World Bank to deal with complex administrative procedures.
· Determination by all to make the Caribbean’s digital economy a reality.