Nearshore Americas

Digicel’s Big Boss Says No 5G for the Caribbean

Digicel owner Denis O’Brien recently put Caribbean nations on notice  that, at the moment, there’s no business case for 5G deployment in the region.

Digicel’s big boss stated that neither Digicel nor the rest of the major telecom operators in the Caribbean are willing to deploy 5G as long as regional governments expect them to foot the bill.

“We’re not doing it [deploying 5G] because the Caribbean 9, which is all the main operators, have come together and said to Caricom and the telecom union we are not rolling out 5G until you do something about fair share because there is no business case,” O’Brien told news outlet LightReading in late December. “4G was a shocking business case. 5G is a disaster.”

O’Brien has good reason to be extra-careful with his money in the Caribbean. Digicel’s spent years struggling with heavy debt, reported to be over US$7 billion in 2019. The company also suffered a tremendous revenue crash in Haiti –once a major market of theirs– and has seen much of its infrastructure investments in the region turn sour as average revenue per user has fallen since the early 2000s.

“4G was a shocking business case [in the Caribbean]. 5G is a disaster”—Denis O’Brien, Digicel Owner & Board Chair.

But he’s not the only skeptic when it comes to 5G deployment in the Caribbean. Industry analysts and market operators don’t see 5G happening in the region until telecom infrastructure is radically overhauled. The issue is that governments don’t have enough funds to pull off the feat, and operators refuse to undertake the project unless incentives are attractive enough. In short: no one wants to fork out the cash. 

5G is sold by telecom operators as the next big thing in digital communications and the key to unlock another technological leap. For regions like the Caribbean, which have for long struggled to catch up with the pace of global technological advancement, 5G represents a chance to level the playing field.

At least on paper, not having access to 5G networks while the rest of the world –and its competitors in the global services sector– does could put the whole region at a major disadvantage.

 

Not a problem…for now

BPO and global service providers know what they’re getting into when they set up operations in the Caribbean. While far from the stereotypical depictions of a technologically backwards region, Caribbean countries tend to lag behind when it comes to telecommunications infrastructure, even when compared to Latin American markets, where connectivity isn’t always top-notch. 

Anand Biradar, President of the Global Services Association of Jamaica (GSAJ), described the island’s Internet connectivity as a “6.5 out of 10” in an interview with NSAM, noting that, even in the capital (Kingston) and surrounding areas, where connectivity is higher, “reliability is questionable.”  

In spite of those shortcomings, service providers have managed to turn several Caribbean countries –Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, St. Lucia– into strong regional or even global competitors in the BPO space. Some like ibex, itel and Sagility –where Mr. Biradar is Head of Delivery for the Americas– have expanded beyond the Caribbean’s main urban centers.

In other words, service providers have been doing fine with 4G connections. Even in WFH setups, which aren’t that common in the Caribbean anyways, a 4G or even 3G connection works fine due to the fact that many home users rely mostly on mobile networks. 

The Caribbean is constantly battling outdated notions of it being a tech backwater. Not jumping into the 5G train as its competitors get on board will not help its case.

The current absence of 5G won’t kill the Caribbean BPO market. As much as it’s been trumpeted as a game changer, the technology has yet to live up to the years of hype behind it. Market operators argue that it’s a matter of time before creative use cases show what 5G can do for businesses, but the fact remains that those are nowhere to be found yet. 

Regional governments must not let the chance for an upgrade pass, though. Competing geos in Latin America and other parts of the globe are deploying or have already deployed 5G networks, which could give them an advantage; if not operationally, at least in the eyes of investors. The Caribbean is constantly battling outdated notions of it being a tech backwater. Not jumping into the 5G train as its competitors get on board will not help its case. 

Building a case for 5G

Challenges haven’t deterred some telecom operators and regional governments from giving 5G a try in the Caribbean. One Communications and Ericsson announced the launch of Bermuda’s first commercial 5G network in late December 2023. The Dominican Republic launched its second public tender for 5G spectrum that same year. In Jamaica, Kingston Freeport Terminal Limited (KFTL) will be having a private 5G wireless network, courtesy of Nokia.

Attempts are being made to find or even build a business case for 5G in the Caribbean. For some experts, it’s a matter of tackling the challenges head on. 

Marc Kneppers, CTO of Caribbean-based TTG, has commented that, when it comes to Caribbean 5G, “it doesn’t have to be all or nothing”. Kneppers sees emerging trends such as private wireless networks and smaller, focused use cases (like in port authorities) as a way to open up a path for wider deployment.

“You can actually go to the port authority, run a tower and do 5G. They can increase bandwidth, they get the latency, have security cameras, they can track their freights, all that stuff; provide the connectivity,” Kneppers said in a podcast back in May. “It doesn’t require the ROI of upgrading the entire island; you just do that area. You get immediate revenue, because it’s business, but at the same time you can get expertise; you can get antennas on the tower and grow that out.”

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5G isn’t currently a must for Caribbean nations and businesses operating regionally, but they will want to jump in soon; certainly before the technology is years into being a market standard. 

While small experiments such as private wireless networks and focused use cases might help bring wider access, true deployment will be achieved in time only if major operators and regional authorities come to an agreement on how to pay for the necessary overhauls.

Cesar Cantu

Cesar is the Managing Editor of Nearshore Americas. He's a journalist based in Mexico City, with experience covering foreign trade policy, agribusiness and the food industry in Mexico and Latin America.

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