CANTO Secretary General talks Caribbean development

CANTO is a professional association of telecommunications organisations with a Caribbean focus, and it s perhaps best known for holding two well-subscribed annual conferences. But what is the organisation’s vision for developing the regional telecommunications sector? Teresa Wankin, Secretary General of CANTO, explains.

Q: The Caribbean calendar now includes many Internet events but one thing makes CANTO conferences unique—the high turnout of stakeholders from across the ICT space: regulators, ministers, Internet organisations, network operators, suppliers and vendors. What’s drawing all these people to CANTO’s events?

A: I believe in inclusion. As an organisation, CANTO believes that the region cannot get anywhere unless we collaborate with all of the relevant stakeholders. And we want to see different stakeholders working together as well. That’s why we changed the format of our ministerial session from a one-way panel to more of a two-way roundtable, where everyone  is working together and trying to find a middle ground that can move the whole region forward. 

The Caribbean is so small and diverse that no one country can do it alone. We have to come together. Our meetings bring all the stakeholders together. I always boast that in CANTO, you will see Cable & Wireless and you will see Digicel, and you will see all the other smaller operators as well. We are so inclusive that any operator with an interest in the Caribbean can come to CANTO and meet their specific stakeholders.


Q: What’s the main shift you’ve seen in the evolution of CANTO’s conferences over the years?

A: CANTO was birthed at a time when there were only national telcos, and there was no competition in any of the countries. There were just eight operators coming together to talk about issues they were facing at the time. Within 15 years, the sector had a wave of liberalisation, and then competition emerged in some markets. Since that time, we realised that we could not continue doing things in the same way, because our membership was now changing. We even changed our name from “Caribbean Association of National Telecommunication Organisations” to “CANTO”. 

We also had to change our model to become more inclusive. We recognised the need to have all the stakeholders at the table, if we really want to create the environment needed for the kind of dialogue that could move the region forward. So we brought in the ministers, and we also brought in the regulators and ensure that we included capacity-building workshops for them. This adds value, so that when a regulator attends CANTO they are not just hearing the industry and the governments, they are also hearing from their peers, and from the experts in the issues that they are grappling with. More importantly, we also have a closed-door session for regulators only. We aren’t directly involved in that session, but we just create the platform and provide a venue, and give access to regulators from the US and the UK, because we also firmly believe that if there is a good regulatory environment, we can do business. Having FCC Chairman Ajit Pai come to CANTO is a really big win for me because it shows that he thinks enough of us to make time to be here.


Q: The expo floor seems equally diverse, with exhibitors representing many parts of the telecommunications and Internet ecosystem. What’s the thinking behind that exhibition at the centre of the conference?

A: The exhibition floor is very diverse: network operators, product manufacturers and resellers, software developers, specialty service providers. The entire ecosystem really is represented in CANTO. And most of CANTO’s exhibitors serve one or multiple operators. We tell the exhibitors, “Come to CANTO and you will meet everyone. You won’t have to go to every country to meet your customers. CANTO will bring them to one place, and you can come meet them and do business with them.”

The event is arranged so that the conference actually covers some of the technical content that is relevant to the exhibitors. So you sometimes see exhibitors presenting in the conference sessions. The conversation can start in the conference session and end on the exhibition floor.


Q: The two Regional Internet Registries that share responsibility for the Caribbean region are here as well. I saw Mr Bevil Wooding, who is the Caribbean Outreach Liaison at ARIN and Mr Kevon Swift, who is the Head of Strategic Relations and Integration at LACNIC, are actually colocated on the exhibition floor.  Why is it important to have the Registries here at CANTO?

A: Yes, ARIN and LACNIC are both represented here at CANTO. They are as important a regional stakeholder as any other because everything we talk about is enabled by the Internet. So we work closely with the Internet organisations, like ARIN, LACNIC, ICANN and the Internet Society. As operators providing a service, we are actually part of their ecosystem. They have been a part of our conference for about five years.


Q: Beyond the two yearly events, what is the work of CANTO?

A: We get on the ground and find out what issues we need to focus on and pay attention to. Everything revolves around our members. We go back to our membership to find out what needs to be addressed over the upcoming period. Our agenda is always based on what our members want, and that’s fluid and constantly changing. If you look at the last two conferences, there has been a shift in the emphasis from issues like net neutrality and regulation to forward-looking topics like Voice over LTE and post-disaster network resilience. 


Q: What’s your number one priority as the head of CANTO?

A: I believe strongly in corporate social responsibility. I’m from a rural area and I know the importance of Internet access to improving the quality of life for entire communities. This year, we did a project with girls from underserved areas. It was done jointly with TATT, the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago. We took schools like Russel Latapy and Success Laventille, and we brought in the girls and had some fun competitions lined up for them. It was a simple Women in ICT project but it showed us that these girls had talent just like anyone else, and they did really well because we took the time to work with them, and enable some creativity.

We work with Piedata to coordinate our annual hackathon, which is a youth outreach program. Things like these are what I want to see more of coming from this region. There’s nothing that says that the next Facebook or WhatsApp or the next Google can’t come from this region. You put a Caribbean person next to someone from anyone else in the world and give them the opportunity and they excel, and I take pride in that. I want us to harness that. I want people to come to the Caribbean and look for that. Some people think I’m crazy but I think the region is poised for that and I believe in this platform. I believe that the people who come to this conference can help the Caribbean to achieve this. Before, I used to judge the success of our conferences by metrics like headcount but now I’m much more focused on the synergies that need to be created outside of the meeting room.