High-speed cables: Lifelines for Cayman’s economy

It is remarkable, the extent to which Grand Cayman’s physical infrastructure has been transformed over the past decade.

That includes the island-wide renovation and rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Ivan, the grand debut of The Ritz-Carlton, the blossoming of Camana Bay, the construction of Health City, entire neighborhoods springing from nothing, not to mention the new streets, roads and highways linking everything together.

Admittedly, we at the Cayman Compass take great pleasure in publishing front-page headlines about new buildings — symbols of growth, prosperity and positive change. However, in the past few years, a different species of development has also been taking place throughout Cayman that, while not as photogenic as a beachfront luxury resort or sparkling office tower, is just as important economically (arguably more) than any singular concrete-and-asphalt project.

We speak, of course, of the tens of millions of dollars of capital investment that telecommunications companies have been investing beneath our feet and over our heads, on networks of fiber optic cables that deliver exponentially faster TV and Internet service to Cayman’s consumers.

While many residents may best remember the year 2003 as the time when they (or someone they know) became “officially” Caymanian, as part of Cabinet’s mass declaration of 2,850 status grants — perhaps the most significant act of government that year was to sign the “liberalization agreement” with Cable & Wireless that ended the company’s 37-year monopoly on Cayman’s telecom business.

Since that watershed moment, market competition has invigorated the sector, bringing consumers superior service, more advanced products and better prices than before. Cayman has leapt from landlines and dial-up, to Androids, iPads, 4G LTE and high-speed broadband. Currently, Cayman is the most wired country in the Caribbean, in terms of fixed broadband Internet penetration rates, with about 35 subscriptions per 100 residents. (Compare that to 30 subscriptions per 100 people in Anguilla, the second most connected country, or 5 per 100 in Jamaica, one of the least.)

If the electronic device in your pocket, on your desk or in your hands isn’t evidence enough of the seismic shift in technology, here are a couple of data points to consider: From 2005 to 2014, the number of fixed broadband connections in Cayman has grown from about 9,200 to more than 21,300 — an increase of more than 130 percent. (The government didn’t even keep track of this number prior to 2005.)

From 2008 to 2014 (again, the most complete information available), telecom companies have spent about $126 million on “capital expenditures in ICT networks and services,” including nearly $40 million in 2013 alone, and $19 million in the first half of 2014.

Further, as our front-page story in today’s newspaper highlights, the competition in Cayman is far from over, with industry players including LIME (formerly Cable & Wireless), Logic (which bought Weststar and TeleCayman) and C3 (part of Hurley’s Entertainment), each racing to expand its own fiber optic network to homes and businesses. To that group, add in Digicel, which has been growing and diversifying at a regional level through five separate acquisitions in the Caribbean cable TV market in the past year, as well as purchasing significant capacity on submarine cable networks.

But don’t for a moment underestimate Cable & Wireless, which earlier this month announced a blockbuster (by Caribbean standards) deal worth US$3 billion for Columbus International — a Barbados-based company that was a major competitor in 42 countries in the region, though not in Cayman.

Pardon us if we sound a bit excited about all this, because we are. Cayman is in the middle of a telecommunications revolution, sparked by the allowance of competition, fueled by rapid technological progress and producing positive benefits to the island’s economy and the lives of individual consumers. In our opinion, there could hardly be a better demonstration of the basic dynamics of the free market than what has been occurring in this sector over the past 11 years, since Cayman’s government legalized competition.

Our news story quotes Logic’s Pamela Small as saying that this competition has been a “good thing for Cayman.”

We hear that, loud and clear.