Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : August 29th 2013 Contents BG8 | NEWS
BUSINESS GUARDIAN www.guardian.co.tt AUGUST 2013 • WEEK FIVE
The story of Columbus Communications is an inter-
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 pres-
ident, sales and marketing, shared some of her insight
with the Business Guardian.
Columbus has become a regional giant, with telecommuni-
cations operations throughout the greater Caribbean, Andean
and Central America region. Why this region, and why now?
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; cus-
tomers whose low expectations of service also presented barrier
Neither the innovative infrastructure nor large-scale invest-
ment were guarantors of success and the infancy of the reg-
ulatory environment presented real challenges to managing
the playing field, let alone leveling it. To see beyond the scream-
ing risks and embrace the fantastic opportunity of the Caribbean
required entrepreneurial vision, and admittedly, a fair dose of
Today, almost a decade later, we can all celebrate the tremen-
dous 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 intel-
lectual capacity available to deliver on the promise of the tele-
coms 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 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.
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?
The sector is complex and rapidly evolving. The regulatory
challenges to enable this has 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
If the region s regulators fell into the trap of importing irrel-
evant 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.
How do T&T and the Caribbean region stack up with the
other countries or regions in terms of broadband Internet afford-
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 com-
pany 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.
Beyond technology, what corporate social responsibility do
you think Internet Service Providers have to Caribbean citi-
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 technol-
ogy-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 ini-
tiatives 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
What are some examples of practical ways in which ISPs are
working with governments, private sector and NGOs to fulfil
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 facil-
itate 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.
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?
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 pro-
liferation 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 organ-
isations such as the Caribbean Network Operators Group,
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.
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?
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 com-
mitment 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."
Columbus: Region best for
'trialing' new innovations
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.
RHEA YAW CHING
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