Let’s face it: Jamaicans are living in the always-on-always-connected era. That fact is clear in the phone-frenzy of both urbanites and rural dwellers whose busy fingers send hundreds of text messages each day. I’ve often marveled at this modern Jamaica, a society that in the eyes of those living decades past would be nothing short of science fiction. But how often we forget that today’s reality could have remained within the minds of dreamers. How often we forget the dreaded days when monopoly reigned within the telecoms industry.
A Glimpse into the Pre-Liberalisation Era
Perhaps like me, you remember the first time you touched a cell phone. My parents owned a Sprint model in 1996, a heavy chunk of plastic-covered metal, with ugly buttons and a long, adjustable antenna. We felt a bit like royalty but the service was prone to disruptions. Worse yet, there was the cost factor — cell phone service in the 1990s was anything but cheap.
In the pre-liberalisation era, one company possessed exclusive rights to provide voice and data services within Jamaica’s telecommunications industry. That player, Cable & Wireless Jamaica Ltd. (CW&J, later rebranded LIME) would retain the title of Public Enemy No. 1 in the lives of Jamaican residents who were often swamped with exorbitant bills and no alternative to CW&J’s fault-ridden services.
In 1999, the government instigated the liberalization process, offering Jamaicans the benefits and opportunities only competition could bring. The government seemed to have finally realized what economists had long-since understood, that monopolies bare only one fruit: disaster.
Empowering the Masses
Any nation that seeks to broaden its wings and escape the clutches of backwardness or stagnation needs to improve its communications sector. Countries like Myanmar have highlighted this fact. But increased access to communication tools such as cell phones and Internet-enabled devices will not propel a metamorphosis within society if the masses are not liberated.
When I consider the impact of the liberalisation — particularly the role of Digicel — I can’t help but admit it has largely been positive. A few of the most prevalent observations relate to the role of the prepaid payment model as well as infrastructural developments which have significantly improved our ability to communicate with each other across numerous platforms.
Take for instance my grandparents who live in the heart of rural Manchester — a place of jungle and cemeteries. Though financially constrained, they keep the communication window ajar through the purchase of prepaid phone cards. Since landlines have never been installed in their Free Town community, cell phones are their main means of communication. Small scale miracles like these highlight that Jamaica has indeed come a long way since the liberalisation of the telecoms industry.
Ease of Access Increases Economic Prospects
In addition to societal benefits, Jamaica has also been able to access increasing opportunities for economic development. After all, telecommunications is central to business both on the large-scale and small-scale.
Firstly, one could make mention of the fact that thousands of Jamaicans have gained employment as a result of the liberalization. In 2011, 1,200 Jamaicans were Digicel employees but there’re also those who’ve established businesses by selling phone cards and cell phone accessories. Walk the streets of Montego Bay, or any city in Jamaica and you’ll see these street-side entrepreneurs who aren’t afraid to work hard to support themselves and their families.
Even more significant is the impact that liberalization has had in terms of mobile access. Recently, Digicel announced that its 4G mobile network achieved 92% coverage across the island. This network is pivotal to economic development, especially since opportunities such as m-commerce are emerging within the Caribbean region.
My experiences with blogging and freelancing online — opportunities that can balloon into significant earnings — have enforced my confidence in the fact that we live in a time of great opportunities.
“New Voices” Market Jamaican Culture through Social Media and Blogging Platforms
In our world of smart devices, 4G networks and social media, more Jamaicans are becoming engaged in promoting and discussing our culture. No longer are media houses monopolizing the news. Jamaicans, particularly bloggers, vloggers and social media enthusiasts, are becoming newsmakers and society-shakers.
Some notable “new voices” are vloggers Russhaine Berry (creator of “The Dutty Berry Show”) and Carla Moore (“MooreTalk JA”). These Jamaicans highlight the cultural impact of the liberalization, emphasizing that with increased access to communication tools and platforms, we can all become more engaged within Jamaica’s cultural pepper-pot.
Recommendations: Towards a Better Jamaica
Undoubtedly, the liberalization of the telecoms industry has played a major role in helping the nation and its people re-imagine the possibilities for communications, the economy and culture. The collapse of the communications monopoly increased opportunities for Jamaicans to earn a living, connect with each other and act as “new voices” or mouthpieces in the dissemination of Jamaican culture worldwide.
But with all these developments, let us not forget that we are still in transition mode. If we are to accomplish our Vision 2030 goals, we will need to empower citizens of our nation by helping them understand the past and believe in the possibility of a better future.
Our vision for Jamaica as a “place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business” will be possible when families safeguard their children from the dangers of the Internet and inappropriate communications; when youths begin to envision the grand business opportunities that await them in cyberworld instead of turning to scamming and the guns. Corporations like Digicel and government agencies can help uplift the youths of Jamaica by building bridges across various sectors and providing training and tools that will facilitate new opportunities such as m-commerce.