It may have been released more than three years ago, but the implementation of 4G, a mobile phone communication technology that allows fast access to the internet, has been slow. In the EU, only a handful of companies offer 4G services and in most cases coverage is restricted to only the largest urban areas. In the UK, one of the latest countries in which 4G has been launched, service is restricted to the 11 biggest cities.
This slow rate of adoption has made it easy for Antigua and Barbuda, a country that is much smaller in size than the UK but not in its IT-related ambitions, to outpace the progress of many of Europe's more developed markets.
”We believe that 4G is a big step in the right direction for this country. It is also an important testing ground for our company,” says Victor Corcoran, Antigua and Barbuda’s country manager at mobile phone operator Digicel. At the beginning of November 2012, Digicel rolled out two 4G networks in Antigua and Barbuda, one for mobile devices and one for homes and offices, making it the first country in the Caribbean to offer both types of super high-speed internet connection.
According to Mr Corcoran, it is not by chance that Digicel chose Antigua and Barbuda from its 20 markets as the first place to make a foray into 4G. ”Antigua and Barbuda has a government that is very progressive towards IT innovation and is willing to work with the private sector to bring the newest technologies to the country,” he says.
The government’s eagerness to bring the state-of-the-art technology to the country had a formal dimension too, as Digicel's 4G networks were launched in partnership with Antigua and Barbuda's Ministry of Information. The introduction of high-speed broadband is a part of the Government Assisted Technology Endeavour (Gate), the ministry’s attempt to boost the country’s information and communications technology (ICT) capability, which was launched in July 2012.
The brain-child of Antigua and Barbuda’s telecommunications minister, Edmund Mansoor, Gate will also supply 6000 tablets to the country’s students, construct an ICT training facility and special needs resource centre, and set up a training programme for youngsters wishing to work in the IT field. As part of a broader 'e-government' initiative, Gate will also include the training of public officials and the broader implementation of new technologies in sectors such as revenue collection and immigration issues.
”[Gate] will make Antigua and Barbuda a great country for companies considering doing business in the Caribbean, as they will find here both a skilled workforce and the newest technologies,” says Mr Corcoran.
Even before Gate was launched, however, the 2011 Human Development Report, commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), included Antigua and Barbuda in its 'high human development' category. This was based on a number of factors, including income levels and the state of the country's healthcare sector, but a string of hi-tech-oriented initiatives launched prior to 2011 also helped the country achieve high human development status.
In 2006, the country launched the Connect Antigua and Barbuda Initiative, aimed at promoting computer literacy, especially among students. As part of this, the Ministry of Information organises ICTfest, an annual conference on the newest trends in information technologies (4G networks are, unsurprisingly, this year’s ICTfest theme).
What is more, the country has a strong history of successful homegrown tech businesses. Single source technology provider Antigua Computer Technology (ACT) has even become more popular than Apple and IBM in the country.
”At the end of the 1980s I could see a great hunger for technology here and I decided to fill that gap,” says Salomon Doumith, founder and managing director of ACT. Mr Doumith’s company started out in 1989, writing software, then moved on to computer assembly and subsequently expanded into providing internet connections and cooling for servers and data systems. According to Mr Doumith, none of this would have been possible were it not for the demand from the tourism sector, government and individual consumers, but also a supply of skilled employees. ”The awareness of IT [as a career] is growing. You can definitely find an educated bunch over here,” he says.
The online gaming industry is another sector in which Antigua and Barbuda has made pioneering progress, having been one of the first counties to enter the sector. In the 2000s, the rapid expansion of the industry resulted in more than 500 online websites being registered in the country. However, this growth stalled when US legislature prohibited US credit card companies from processing payments from offshore gaming sites. The legislature was contested by Antigua and Barbuda and the World Trade Oragnisation ruled in favour of the island country, but the industry is yet to recover from the setback.
In the meantime, the facilities that served the gaming industry are available to potential investors. ”In this building we have the whole floor that can be used for back-office operations. It can host up to 300 employees,” says Mr Doumith, referring to ACT’s headquarters, aptly named TeleDome. ”Apart from the gaming industry, [the country now has] enterprises that provide back-office operations, for example for airlines and credit card companies.”
Antigua and Barbuda has a lot more to offer the business process outsourcing sector beyond office space, however. It is also in a similar time zone to the east coast of the US, and it has a technically skilled and English-speaking workforce. One of the companies that has taken advantage of this is NCO, a global outsourcing company. The Pennsylvania-headquartered firm employs more than 300 people in Antigua and Barbuda, and has benefited from the supply of workers left without jobs after the growth in the gaming industry came to a halt.
The impact of Antigua and Barbuda's focus on technology is already showing and, as the Gate project gains momentum, the number of ICT-related firms in the country looks set to grow. And if the hordes of tourists ever tire of Antigua and Barbuda's 365 beaches, they can always take refuge in the fact that, thanks to 4G technology, any number of the latest films or games can be downloaded quickly and easily on their phones or laptops.