We have only one more week left of training and we couldn’t be more pleased. Well, actually, no more weeks left of training would be better; but I think we can all make it. After all, if there is one thing I have learned in the last nine weeks it would be patience.
This past week of training was kind of a blur. I suppose the main highlight was the reporting of our individual projects. At the beginning of training, the 23 of use were told that we should each pick a topic about Guyana that interest us, do some research, and present our findings to the rest of the group near the end of training. I chose Information Density. Here’s what I presented:
From Digital Island to Global Village
In the context of developing nations, economic development is achieved when nations pass from agricultural economies to industrial ones. Assuming all countries follow the same stages of development, countries like Guyana will never be able to catch up.
However, by introducing the advantages and benefits that information technology can bring to educational, commercial, medical, and governmental activities; Guyana will be able to leapfrog this development process by moving directly to an information-driven society - if it is given the opportunity.
Developed nations in North America, Europe, and Asia have already made the “global village” a reality. Yet for Guyana and many of the world’s inhabitants, many nations and economies are becoming digital islands.
An example of this seclusion can be found in the telephone:
- 83 countries still have a teledensity below 10 lines for every 100 inhabitants; Guyana being one of them
- 25 countries have a teledensity below one percent
- half of the world has neither made nor received a phone call
The situation is even worse for Internet access. Some 61 countries have less than one Internet user for every 100 citizens. Guyana has only 0.4 Internet users per 100 citizens, according to the CIA’s World Fact Book.
Furthermore, the services are often prohibitive to use due to high costs:
- a call from the US to Geneva costs less than five US cents a minute, which is the same price for a call to neighboring cities in Canada
- a call to Guyana from the US, however, costs US$7.00 per minute, or 140 times more. If the price came down, Guyanese would better be able to join the international community for the cost of doing business with Guyana would be reduced
This is the reality. Countries on the hot side of the IT spectrum belong to the “global village” and gain the benefits of a larger distributed culture by taking advantage of the network effect that comes from collaboration.
Nations with too many regulatory boundaries or high costs, however, become semi-isolated digital islands and lose the intellectual advantages that come from free trade and access to the technology that drives it.
Guyana is one of those nations.
On January 28, 1991, St. Thomas-based telecom giant Atlantic Tele-Network signed an agreement with the government of Guyana to acquire 80 percent of Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company, with the government retaining the remaining 20 percent.
ATN agreed to expand and improve Guyana’s telecom services. At the time, telecom service in Guyana was among the worst in the Americas:
- International Direct Dialing was restricted to only 75 lines, with most overseas calls being placed through an operator
- There was a long waiting list for telephones, some of which were more than a decade old
- There were less than two telephones per 100 people
- There was no phone directory or Internet services
ATN had nowhere to go but up. And according to a 1996 report from the International Telecommunications Union, Guyana recorded the highest growth in teledensity in the Latin American/Caribbean region; a growth of 26.5 percent.
While ATN deserves praise for these accomplishments, its 1991 agreement with Guyana is the basis of the very problem that is making Guyana a digital island.
When ATN was awarded the GT&T contract in 1991, it was granted a monopoly of varying periods - up to 40 years on a broad range of telecom services - including “national and international voice and data transmission.”
Today, Guyana stands out as having one of the longest-term legal telecom monopolies granted to a private operator, anywhere in the world. I remind you, their contract is for 40 years! At a time when technology doubles in speed every 18 months, Guyana’s digital island will quickly become as distant as the stars.
To bridge this digital divide and turn it into a digital opportunity, Guyana must find a way to legally rid itself of ATN’s monopoly and open the telecommunications market to competition and innovation.
In September of 2001, the government of Guyana tried to do just that. It was then that it gave public notice of its intention to reform the telecommunications sector. It conducted nationwide consultations and surveys on the issues involved, including the termination of the GT&T monopoly.
Not willing to see its 1991 contract dismissed, ATN is trying to get the Inter-American Development Bank from approving a loan for the United Nations? Information Communications Technology project. If granted, the US$18 million loan would enable Guyana to modernize its technology sector and become a member of our global village.
Naturally, the real goal is not just to get more computers or more telephones into Guyana, but rather to extend access to information, to guarantee the right to communicate, and to focus on how technology can be used to achieve broader social and economic goals.
But without changes to ATN’s 1991 contract with the government of Guyana, the people of this nation may very well find themselves becoming more like their Caribbean neighbors. For instead of being a nation bordered by Latin-American countries, it will become more like an island – only this time it will be a digital one.
I also enjoyed many of the other reports that were given by fellow volunteers. Shannon reported on animal rights, finding that there are none; Dean did an interesting report on local names for various wildlife; Steve reported on sugar cane, Guyana’s top export; Emily focused on slavery and plantations; Hans introduced some music of local artists; among many others.
I did receive one nice surprise that day regarding my report. During one of our breaks, Marcia Wilson (our shyest facilitator) slipped me a nice note commenting on my story about Information Density here in Guyana. It read:
Your presentation was very interesting, let alone pertinent to all attentive ears and curious minds. It was the most thorough and factual presentation in the series of cross-cultural events.
It was very refreshing the way you delivered yourself. Of particular significance, your presentation was supported by sound legal terms upon which the contract was bound [referring to ATN’s contract with Guyana’s government].
The impartial stance upon which you embarked to point out how Guyana stood to lose and in the same vein careful to mention their perceived fear.
Your presentation could not have been more timely. You ought to be congratulated for a job well done.
Thanks Marcia. Your comments on my presentation were thoughtful.