Total mobility

Richard Costas on the consequences of telecom sector liberalisation and the explosion of mobile phone sales in the Caribbean

  • Photograph courtesy Richard Costas

More than 300 million mobile phones were sold worldwide during the first six months of 2004, according to Gartner Inc, a provider of research and analysis on the global information technology industry. For the whole of 2004, Gartner analysts project total sales of between 620 and 650 million mobile handsets.

Mobile handset growth in developed markets is due mainly to existing subscribers switching to newer phones that take advantage of more recent technologies — technologies that are turning “phones” into personal communications centres. In developing markets, such as the Caribbean, growth relies more on subscribers who are either new to the technology, or live in areas where mobile networks were recently introduced or opened up to competition. The most obvious result of competition has been a fall in the cost of handsets and the price of making calls.

Handset sales in the Caribbean are a tiny part of the world total, but in local terms growth during the past two years has been huge, as liberalisation of the telecommunications sector, particularly the mobile sector, has accelerated. Barbados and Jamaica have already liberalised their mobile sectors, and in mid-September the other major market in the Commonwealth Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago, announced the sale of two additional mobile operating licences. The incumbent sole provider, Telecommunications Services of Trinidad and Tobago (TSTT), can expect to face competition from 2005. Many of the smaller islands of the Caribbean, from Antigua in the north to St Lucia and Grenada in the south, have already opened their mobile telecoms sectors to competition.

Barbados, where the mobile market was opened up earlier this year, is fast becoming another part of the world where people can be seen walking down the street apparently talking to themselves — using their mobile phones and earpieces while on the move. They’re mobile, not crazy.

One of the Caribbean’s largest and longest-established telecom companies, Cable & Wireless (C&W), which at first might be thought to fear competition, actually says it welcomes it.

“Competition stimulates demand,” says David Smith, Cable & Wireless Barbados’s marketing director. “From Barbados’s perspective, competition has helped to drive the whole market. And competition driving growth holds for most markets.” Market growth, of course, means more business (which is good for the providers), and lower prices and more services (which is good for consumers).

Apart from the benefits of mobility and additional technologies, mobile networks have an important advantage compared with fixed-line networks in regions like the Caribbean. Fixed-line phones (and other devices) are usually connected to the “telephone exchange” by overhead wires strung between poles. The poles and cables are more vulnerable than mobile networks to the kind of severe weather that sometimes affects the Caribbean. Mobile masts are fewer in number and less fragile than fixed line poles. The devastation caused this year by Hurricane Ivan in Grenada and other islands is an example. After a hurricane, telecommunications are vital to people’s survival and to national recovery.

Sahra O’Neill, marketing manager at Digicel, which launched in the Caribbean in 2001 and claims it is the fastest-growing mobile operator in the region, says: “We were able to get our network up and running in Grenada within a couple of days, while the fixed-line business was still down.”

But all the larger mobile operators will have to do more than service individual territories if they are to prosper. Those that wish to thrive will have to establish truly pan-Caribbean networks that open up communications across the region and with the rest of the world, either through their own networks or by roaming agreements — agreements that enable customers to use their phones when they are travelling abroad.

AT&T Wireless has been in the Caribbean for almost three years. Kim Whitehead, AT&T’s general manager in Barbados, says providers must have global reach to succeed. The company, which has mobile licences in 17 Caribbean territories, has roaming agreements with 256 companies worldwide.

“We are constantly saying we want our customers to have the broadest reach possible, so wherever they go, and for whatever reason, business or work, they can stay connected.”

C&W has just relaunched its mobile brand, called bmobile, across the Caribbean, and has a new brand in bmobilepulse, which will be a platform for the provision of the kinds of additional services recent technologies make possible. C&W’s David Smith says bmobilepulse “is about giving our customers services that offer fun, information, and entertainment — all sorts of content they can download on their phone and use.”

Mobile phones have many other capabilities that have yet to reach the Caribbean — in some markets the mobile phone can also be used to make payments or transact banking business, for instance. In time, these services will undoubtedly become available in the Caribbean.

The mobile phone has come a long way since the days when they were little more than two-way radios fitted into cars or monsters the size of briefcases. The speed with which mobile telephony has developed, and the way it has developed from a medium for transmitting speech into a fully interactive means of receiving, sending, and exchanging information of all kinds, is staggering. But we are not at the end of development by any means. The technology continues to develop rapidly. Even if consumers themselves have no interest in wireless industry acronyms such as GSM, GPRS, and EDGE, they are keen to make use of the benefits those technologies provide.

In Europe there are signs that the mobile phone and other mobile devices are replacing the fixed phone, particularly among younger people who more readily accept new technology. C&W’s David Smith says that these young Europeans are “looking at the phone as their prime means of communication”, and therein lies the value of the mobile phone. A fixed-line phone is just that: a phone. A mobile phone is much more than a phone (a camera, an Internet access tool, and a means of sending emails and text messages, for example), and it is always where you are.

The mobile also has business benefits, especially as competition reduces costs and the technology is able to handle information in different forms and from different sources. AT&T Wireless’s Kim Whitehead says that, while there will always be lifestyles and situations that make fixed-line services necessary, there is good reason for some customers to make their mobile their main phone.

“Why shouldn’t your telephone number be attached to you as a person, rather than to you as an address? Wireless allows business people to merge their personal life with their business life. Why shouldn’t my children be able to reach me in the middle of the day, but at the same time I can do business when I am at home?”

When travelling, for instance, business people can use the time they spend before a flight at an airport to clear their emails or catch up with events.

“These are tremendously positive impacts,” Whitehead says. “Wireless provides business tools that reduce costs and give additional reach and accessibility, because people no longer have to wait until they get back to their office

or their hotel for somebody to be able to reach them, to return phone calls or deal with their business.”

Just as the railway and the motor car transformed our world, and altered the structure of our cities and landscapes, so too will the mobile phone alter the very pattern of our lives. In what way and how much things will change it is too early to say, but there is no doubt at all that mobile phones will become more and more common and more and more useful. Which is why the German name for the mobile phone, “handy”, is so appropriate.


Readers interested in the history of the mobile phone may wish to visit There are many glossaries of wireless and mobile terms (for English speakers), one of which can be found at

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