We Must Find Our Place On The Internet Now
The unfortunate reality that we are not yet a 'wired' society was brought home during the recent Bahamas Web Awards, which evaluated over 40 Bahamian web sites.
The past decade has seen the greatest change to our society since the advent of majority rule in the 1960s but most Bahamians donšt know about it.
We refer, of course, to the Internet an electronic communications network created in America in 1983 that first appeared on our horizon in 1995. It is now available to most Bahamians as an advanced broadband service, but only a fraction of the population takes advantage of it.
The unfortunate reality that we are not yet a 'wired' society was brought home during the recent Bahamas Web Awards (created by Bahamas B2B), which evaluated over 40 Bahamian web sites. The event underlined just how far we have come in our exploitation of the Internet and how far we have yet to go.
The level of sophistication displayed on those Web sites was Impressive (this writer was a judge). Entries included government agencies, businesses, churches, schools and civic groups. The Tiamo eco-resort on South Andros won top place overall. By all accounts, Tiamo is enormously successful, and it markets itself only over the Internet.
Bahamian Internet pioneer Brian Nutt was the keynote speaker at the event, held at the British Colonial Hilton. He is also president of the Bahamas Employers Confederation and received a special OHall of Fame' citation at the awards.
Mr Nutt spoke about the invention of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners Lee in 1990, which made the Internet useful to ordinary people. Within just four years there were millions of surfers visiting over 10,000 Web sites...and growth has been exponential ever since. There are now almost a billion users and millions of sites.
But the Bahamas lags far behind. Despite (or rather because of) Batelco's monopoly, the Internet was introduced here as a sideline by the country's first private radio station - 100 Jamz, which is mostly owned by a 100-year-old publishing enterprise called the Tribune.
Jamz used its satellite uplink (built for radio broadcasts to Grand Bahama) to launch the country's first Internet service in mid-1995...in the teeth of predictable opposition from the public sector.
My company Media Enterprises signed up for this pioneering dial-up service in September, 1995, at the invitation of Robert Carron. We used the brand-new Netscape browser, which had commercialised a piece of university software known as Mosaic.
But before this, we had been one of a few score subscribers using a primitive dial-up email system administered by the College of the Bahamas. Initiated in 1993 by the Organisation of American States, this let users download mail twice a day. The local administrators were COB academics Barbara Armbrister and Neil Sealey.
"No-one was very happy with this system," Mr Sealey told Tough Call recently. "But it was better than nothing. In 1994 Cable Bahamas offered to run a direct fibre-optic line to the college, which would have made a big difference, but they couldn't get past the politics involved."
Brian Nutt signed up for Internet service in 1996 and spent his spare time learning how to write Web pages. He was probably the first to develop the concept of a Bahamian Web community, which he tried to register using the Bahamian domain name extension .bs.
At that time, the College of The Bahamas owned the top level domain for the country. But the registration agent was none other than BaTelco the usual villain of these accounts.
In 1998, "I applied and paid for, through BaTelCo, the Bahamian Internet domain name of "tropitec.bs" with the goal of creating a Bahamian Web community and developing and hosting Web sites," Mr Nutt recalled.
But after eight weeks of being stonewalled he withdrew the request. He was able to register online with the extension .net within 48 hours.
At first, the Bahamian Internet experience was frustrating and costly ($250 per month compared with $20 in the US). But as service and access improved we missed a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the e-commerce revolution.
Even during the late 1990s, the government seemed to have the view that the Internet was irrelevant to Bahamians. Mr Nutt's experience is clear evidence of this mindset:
"After applying for a Bahamian domain name without result, I wrote a three-page letter to the then deputy prime minister making some recommendations," he continued. "I said we were forfeiting our Internet presence. Not only was this letter never replied to, there wasn't even an acknowledgement of receipt."
Mr Nutts's early Web portal (tropitec) received inquiries from American firms seeking to set up offshore e-commerce Web sites here. So he tried to follow up: "the commercial banks said they had no intention of becoming involved in e-commerce. The Central Bank said that not only was there no policy, they did not even have a statement on e-commerce."
Perhaps sensing that the world was passing us by, in 1999 the Ingraham government belatedly put together a working party (with IBM consultants) to develop a framework for Bahamians to participate in the digital economy.
This group reported in March 2000 that there was a "window of opportunity for the Bahamas to catch up and take a leadership position" in global e-commerce especially travel, financial and corporate services, and transshipping."
The report included a roadmap for immediate action to make e-business the third pillar of the Bahamian economy after tourism and financial services. But it took another three years for the government to draft a policy and enact the necessary laws to support electronic transactions and set security rules.
Although there has been competition for the provision of Internet services since 1996 as a result of 100 Jamz calling the government's bluff), today there are only two main providers BTC's Batelnet and Cable Bahamas' Coralwave. Both offer broadband service (one via DSL phone lines, the other via fibre-optic cables).
Cable recently bought Bahamas Online from Systems Resource Group, the local company that introduced our first private telephone service this year. Bahamas Online had earlier acquired the Tribune's pioneering service, Internet Online.
Both Cable and BTC service most communities in the country. However, out of a total population of about 310,000, there are fewer than 40,000 Internet users and 25,000 of these are Coralwave subscribers. That's why experts say our high broadband penetration doesn't give the real picture.
"With connections in the big hotels, offshore banks, government offices and wealthy homes with numerous machines, Internet usage is concentrated among a small percentage of the population," Bahamas B2b Webmaster told Tough Call. "Most down-home' Bahamians are still not online."
This has a lot to do with the government's failure to promote an Internet culture (even computers were out of reach for most consumers until recently because of exorbitant import duties). A big consequence of this is that anyone developing applications for the local Internet market has access to only a fraction of the population. Such a small market hinders industry development.
To make matters worse, the lack of credit card processing has blocked e-commerce, one of the most promising new marketing tools for Bahamian business. This, combined with foreign exchange restrictions, has made doing business globally virtually impossible for Bahamian companies.
As a result some local Internet gurus favour a special authority to promote and guide the growth and development of the Bahamian Web. This would conceivably operate like the Bahamas Financial Services Board, but with an added self-regulatory dimension.
"We currently suffer from a variety of problems, including serious violations of privacy. Even extreme hacking goes unchecked and local networks are poorly managed from a security standpoint, with hundreds of virus-infected robots sending spam around the world," one Webmaster commented. "There should be someone to complain to about obvious breaches of security and privacy in the delivery of service from an ISP.
"The police cyber-crime division didn't even have a computer when we called to make a report, and their e-mail was inoperable. And the Public Utilities Commission is not very Internet savvy."
But the main drawback seems to be the government's failure to embrace, encourage and promote e-technology. Analysts say there should be as much concern for the Internet as for tourism or financial services as they are all inextricably linked.
Some think local banks should be coerced with financial incentives to offer e-processing for credit cards. And as many government services as possible should be put online, to save taxpayers money and time. To some extent this is already happening, but the pace of implementation is excruciatingly slow and often flawed, critics say.
As Mr Nutt noted in his speech at the Web awards: "It has been over six years since my attempt to register a Bahamian domain, and I don't know how easy (or hard) it is to obtain one now, but I note that of the 42 Bahamas Web Award nominees, only three domains are Bahamian registered.
"It is important for us to recognize what the Internet means and the consequences it can have from a Bahamian perspective. The Internet levels the playing field so that size and geographic location become minor considerations."
We can see the reality of this from the latest big development on the net. Google, the search engine launched by two under-30 computer nerds in 1998, has struck a deal with five top university libraries to put millions of books online in a searchable database available to everyone.
This groundbreaking project is being compared to the invention of printing itself in the 15th century. Google says its mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.
So rather than seeing the Internet as something too difficult to be confronted, or as a passing fad, we should pull out all the stops to create the right framework for a digital economy. The Internet is the means of a major social transformation. And although this will take decades to complete, we must find our place on the World Wide Web now this is where the knowledge-based economy happens.
As one expert said, if you want to know where the Internet is heading, talk to your kids: "because they are the ones for whom the net is a normal part of life...It is the medium through which young people interact with each other."
What more evidence would one need to conclude that the Internet will be a big part of our future?
Larry Smith, Tough Call
December 30, 2004
Tough Call is a column that appears in The Tribune