The year was 1995. The Jamaican dollar was fluctuating between 30 and 40 to 1 US$, Lime Tree Lane was still a must-see on TV, and Bounty Killer’s popularity was continuing to surge on the success of his hit music video for “Cellular Phone”.
It featured a slick digital beat, a snazzy limo, a beautiful leading lady and, of course, one chunky MicroTAC cellular phone. I immediately started wanting one of those wonderful wireless thingamajigs, too. However, after a while, I began to figure that cellular phones were the preserve of men who got chauffeured around in limos. Suffice to say, the cost of Bounty’s MicroTAC (or any of the other cellular phones on offer at the time) didn’t exactly fill me with confidence that I’d soon get my hands on one. Consequently, I temporarily confined thoughts of phone ownership to the recesses of my pre-teen mind.
“More people have phone than anytime else”
This was one of the achievements enumerated by the Right Honourable Percival Patterson, then Prime Minister of Jamaica, while listing the accomplishments of the ruling PNP during his address at the party’s annual conference in September 2003. Understandably, it garnered much less attention than the “accomplishment” Mr. Patterson highlighted next. The “more man have gal than anytime else” comment attributed to the former PM generated so much debate (and consternation) that it put everything that preceded it comfortably in the shade. Personally, however, it was his pronouncement regarding the increased prevalence of phones in the hands of the people that resonated with me. It was a self-evident reality to which I could relate. By that time, I had moved on to my second cellular phone – a not so macho Motorola C333. (In all honesty, I really hadn’t noticed much of a spike in my Casanova credentials during the time span referenced.)
From mono to poly
Prior to September 1999, the Jamaican telecoms sector was dominated by Cable and Wireless Jamaica. However, with the dawn of the new millennium looming, Telecommunications in Jamaica: Monopoly to Liberalized Competition to Monopoly (2000 – 2011) details how the “Government in an effort…to move Jamaica towards [becoming a] knowledge-based [,] connected society…embarked on an effort to liberalize the telecommunications industry”. This thrust urgently demanded the termination of the various exclusive licenses which were then held by the telecoms monopoly. The successful achievement of this imperative paved the way for the liberalization of the sector to commence. This metamorphic process was eventually completed in March 2003. At various stages throughout, many of today’s popular industry players – including Mossel Jamaica Limited (subsequently rebranded Digicel) – arrived on the scene. The intense competition fuelled by their arrival sent device and service subscription costs tumbling, innovation soaring, and the average Jamaican consumer away smiling.
A catalyst for commerce
Customers (clients) are the lifeblood of any business – whether it’s a huge multinational corporation or a humble corner shop. Without the ability to easily connect with these customers, it’s extremely difficult for any business – irrespective of its size – to thrive. The opening up of the local telecoms sector has made it significantly easier and more affordable for the average local business, particularly a small one, to access the communication technologies required to connect with potential customers both inside and outside of Jamaica. This transformative process has also made it much less of a chore for the average Jamaican with in-demand skills to seek and secure full-time, part-time, or freelance work with employers in places as far removed, theoretically, as Timbuktu. 1-2-3 easy access to sites such as Elance and LinkedIn makes it all possible.
A coordinator of communication
The recent introduction of a telephone “talk tax” by the Jamaican Government wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms by the majority of Jamaicans. However, even the most vehement opponent of the measure would have to admit – if only grudgingly – that it actually made sense from the perspective of a cash-strapped administration. Why? Well, as possessors of that wonderful gift of gab, most of us do a lot of talking – by phone, face-to-face, and via Internet-based apps. That’s among the reasons why Jamaica – Telecoms, Mobile and Broadband indicates that Jamaica had a cellular subscription rate of 128% in 2013. This figure speaks to a number of realities – including the urgent need to fast-track number portability legislation. However, most importantly, it highlights the fact that almost every Jamaican now owns a cell phone, allowing people like my grandparents in the rural district of Grove Town, Manchester to keep in touch with relatives all over the world.
A curator of culture
In the days of yore, joining the distinguished ranks of Jamaican cultural ambassadors required one to have copious amounts of talent, an extensive network of connections, or a suitable combination of both. The Honourable Louise Bennett-Coverley and Robert (Bob) Nesta Marley are among the many Jamaicans from earlier generations who brought our culture to virtually every nook and cranny of the world on their globetrotting journeys. In the pre-liberalization era, the Jamaican cultural narrative was definitely shaped by the minority of us with access to these physical stages and virtual (Internet-supported) platforms. Now, however, almost any John Brown or Poochie Loo can contribute to the continuing evolution of this narrative by leveraging the reach and potency of various new media platforms.
Rapidly widening access to the Internet (and video-sharing sites such as YouTube) and inexpensive mobile devices with picture-taking and video recording capabilities have made it all possible.
A look to the future
The local telecoms liberalization process has had a profound impact on the economy, communication, and culture since it came on-stream in the dying days of the 20th century. It’s helped to create the fertile ground required for us to see further (and faster) growth in the level of broadband Internet penetration, more dramatic cuts to call and data rates, and the continued development of a culture of groundbreaking, disruptive innovation.