Broadband Buccaneers: Columbus Sets out to Conquer Caribbean Communications

ImageThe story of Columbus Communications is an interesting one. Few technology entrepreneurs or investors, looking at the Caribbean region, would have seen a place rich with promise. But Columbus, perhaps like its 15th-century pioneering namesake, saw something different. Rhea Yaw Ching, the company’s corporate vice president, sales and marketing, shared some of that insight with the Business Guardian. GB: Columbus has become a regional giant, with telecommunications operations throughout the greater Caribbean, Andean and Central America region. Why this region, and why now?

RYC: Any right-thinking company would have thought twice before investing so heavily in a region already dominated by large and entrenched players, where economies of scale could only be derived through mass acquisition of customers--customers whose low expectations of service also presented barrier to success.

Neither the innovative infrastructure nor large-scale investment were guarantors of success and the infancy of the regulatory environment presented real challenges to managing the playing field, let alone levelling it. To see beyond the screaming risks and embrace the fantastic opportunity of the Caribbean took entrepreneurial vision, and admittedly, a fair dose of madness.

Today, almost a decade later, we can all celebrate the tremendous value derived from Columbus’ entrance to the Caribbean market. That this has taken place in such a short period of time is a testament to the potential of region as much as the vision and commitment of our team. Modernising the telecommunications sector was a bold and important first step. Struggling to share the very scarce intellectual capacity available to deliver on the promise of the telecoms space is not limited to the Caribbean. We managed to sidestep some major potholes and can now point to some significant achievements.

The relatively small economies that typify the Caribbean have been, in my view, more of a blessing than a curse. In fact several of the often referenced 'disadvantages' of the region, have been in fact pivotal to the success of Columbus. For us, the countries of the Caribbean have represented the best environment for trialing new innovations, much to the envy of many countries in the so-called developed world. This has resulted in a good game of leapfrog, allowing us to pioneer in the deployment of advanced technologies--from 100MB broadband to multi-platform TV--before more than 75 per cent of the countries in the world.

GB: How does the Caribbean region compare to other parts of the world in terms of the regulation of our telecommunications sector. Relatively speaking, is the Caribbean a restrictive or a liberal environment for telecoms to operate?

RYC: The sector is complex and rapidly evolving. The regulatory challenges to enable this have not been lost on us. We have to recognise the region’s regulators' track record of collaboration to create a regulatory environment that make sense for the Caribbean. If the region’s regulators fell into the trap of importing irrelevant models from dissimilar jurisdictions, we would not have experienced the progress we now all enjoy. There is no universally accepted rulebook for developing this space. So, for a sector so intimately related to the health and development of a country, we absolutely recognise that governing the industry is a collective responsibility. Those of us who function it this sector share the burden of ensuring its continued relevance to our region’s development.

Q: How do T&T and the Caribbean region stack up with the other countries or regions in terms of broadband internet affordability?

RYC: Make no mistake: Columbus continues to pursue its original goal of providing affordable access. Our objective is to provide consumers, businesses and governments with the technological tools needed to enable tangible development opportunities. We are also acutely aware that there are other milestones that must be met for the opportunity to be fully realised. Not all of these milestones are entirely within our control. The degree to which our economies are leveraging ICT to right-size, post economic fallout, as well as to find and exploit new diversification opportunities is, in my opinion, the present bottleneck. The solution to breaking this bottleneck goes beyond the individual responsibility of Columbus, or any company or agency for that matter.

There is no question that broadband, for example, led by our actions is now more accessible and affordable, and at speeds that truly make a difference to making that access count. The sobering reality, however, is that broadband is still largely inaccessible to the largest socio-economic group in the Caribbean. The irony is that this low-income group, which suffers greatest during economically challenging times, can make a collective contributor to GDP growth that can positively change a country’s development trajectory.

GB: Beyond technology, what corporate social responsibility do you think Internet Service Providers have to Caribbean citizens?

RYC: As a company whose own success is predicated upon the success of the countries it serves, we view our role in spurring development as crucial and mandatory.

We focus considerable attention on providing Internet access opportunities to school-aged children. For example, we offer as a rule, free broadband to every government school within range of our network. We also invest in indigenous technology-enabled learning initiatives and provide wireless Internet access, or Wi-Fi access spots in community centres in rural areas throughout the region.

While we take great pride in the positive impact these initiatives are generating, having already impacted more than 100,000 children across the region, we acknowledge much more can and should be done.

We recently made some significant efforts that, hopefully, will make a further dent. This year we will be launching a special broadband package across the region at a price designed especially for smaller family budgets. We have already had good reviews from the launch in Curacao and Barbados, and later this year, we will be launching a similar package in Grenada and Trinidad.

GB: What are some examples of practical ways in which ISPs are working with governments, private sector and NGOs to fulfil those responsibilities?

RYC: Recognising that we must also increase efforts in spawning innovation in education content, we also very recently formalised a partnership with BrightPath Foundation, the region’s leading non-profit agency in the technology-education space. The arrangement with BrightPath Foundation will allow us to facilitate innovative technology education programmes and digital content creation initiatives throughout the Caribbean. Similar partnerships with other technology, education and civil-society groups will be announced in the coming weeks.

GB: Besides the affordability of broadband, what other issues are affecting local content creation across the region? What should ISPs and other stakeholders be doing to address those issues?

RYC: For us, success involves creating avenues to help support the development of the Caribbean.  But we also do our part in protecting the region’s unique cultural identity and heritage. We are acutely aware that in bringing the technology and external content to the region in such a significant way, comes with inherent risks.

Our role in development includes efforts to counterbalance that risk with local content generation that speaks to our issues, in our language, using our people.

We actively support the promotion and distribution of local content in all forms: from film, to books, to music and television content. We are particularly proud of our association with the video production industry where we provide free distribution on our VOD platform and where producers earn 100 per cent of the revenue earned for charged features. We will be pushing this concept to another level as our video platform moves to an online environment, opening up opportunities to display all types of local content. Local digital content presents a social as well as an economic proposition for the region that is worth fully exploiting.

This may seem paradoxical, but I believe that the more we make our Internet locally relevant, the greater is the opportunity to tap into the global revenue opportunity. We strive to eliminate barriers to that possibility by continually investing in both infrastructure and technical capacity building initiatives. For example, Columbus proudly supports the proliferation of Internet Exchange Points across the region. We are also investing in as the growth and development of the regional technical community through partnerships with organisations such as the Caribbean Network Operators Group, CARIBNOG.

Of course, these initiatives alone will not offset the obvious disparity that currently exists, but we continue to engage other barriers to success, such as legislation to facilitate e-commerce, cyber security challenges, ICT education, and incentives for technology innovation and entrepreneurship.

Unless the revenue model changes, Internet usage patterns evolve and the regulatory environment matures, success will always be limited. For this transformation to occur, the region must truly believe that we have content worth creating and products worth selling. But that’s a story for another day.

GB: Take me five, ten years into the future. What developments are on the horizon to enhance our communication capability nationally and regionally? How likely is it that we will have our own IXP in T&T soon?

RYC: I certainly don’t have a crystal ball. Technology is changing so quickly that no one can really say with the future will look like. What I can say is that Columbus has a long-term commitment to the region. Our philosophy is to ensure that every citizen in every country is allowed the same opportunity to succeed in whatever their chosen area. This is our main goal and it is firmly anchored by our very simple mission, “Don’t predict the future, enable it.”