Engineers lay fibre optic cable. The hi-tech network which facilitates high quality broadband internet access is not yet available in the outer districts. - Photo: Taneos Ramsay

Even during the height of the coronavirus crisis, when the majority of people in the Cayman Islands were confined to their homes, life did not grind to a halt.

People worked remotely, socialised on Facebook, held business meetings on Microsoft Teams, renewed their vehicle licences online, and were granted emergency access to their pension funds with a digitally notarised electronic signature.

Children did their homework on laptops, patients consulted doctors over Zoom, people ordered food on their smartphones and kept up with the news via online media and live-streamed government press conferences.

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Over the next few months, tourists will report their health status through a BioButton affixed to their chests, ‘geo fencing’ will be used to ensure COVID-positive patients comply with quarantine measures, and smartphone apps will likely play a role in tracking and tracing contacts if there is a second wave of the pandemic locally.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then COVID-19 has been the ultimate catalyst for a period of accelerated adoption of technology in the Cayman Islands.

Now business leaders believe Cayman must capitalise on this momentum and use the tools that made life possible during the crisis, to make life better in its aftermath.

Digital tsunami

COVID-19 was the first wave of a ‘digital tsunami’, said Mike Mannisto, a partner at professional services company EY.

He believes investment in tech infrastructure is essential to drive the economy of the future, to create jobs and make lives better post-COVID.

“We need the fastest, the cheapest and the best high-speed, high-capacity internet, and we need it to be accessible and affordable to everyone,” he said.

Mannisto, who is also a trustee and former president of the International College of the Cayman Islands, believes that could be the foundation for creating a thriving tech industry as a new pillar of Cayman’s economy.

Mike Mannisto

“You might have heard of smart cities; I believe we can take the concept further and start to think about a smart country driven by a leading tech sector,” he said.

Blair Lilford, of Cayman-based Salt Technology – a cloud and tech solutions provider – agrees that being a smart island, which uses cutting-edge telecommunications to make people’s lives easier and doing business more efficient, should be the goal.

He said the pandemic had exposed weaknesses in Cayman’s tech infrastructure but has also accelerated the desire to address them.

“Doing things like replacing the sub-sea (telecoms) cable are now being presented as projects for the near future rather than long-term goals.”

If Cayman is serious about creating a thriving tech sector or even providing the right environment to support the businesses that already exist, there is a lot of catching up to do, said Bob Taylor, former CEO of WestStar and now head of corporate development for tech start-up Global Risk and Data Authority.

He believes there is enormous potential for Cayman in this area, but there are some fundamental questions that need to be addressed first.

He puts it bluntly: “Why is the cost of internet so high, and why is the service so poor?”

Infrastructure development

Replacing the ageing Maya-1 sub-sea cable has been highlighted as a key priority to bring faster and cheaper internet to the island.

It is likely to be a costly proposition, but Lilford says the economic opportunity it creates will be invaluable. He believes it should be treated as ‘core infrastructure’, just like the airport and public roads.

“We have a cable that is coming towards end of life, that was built for dial-up internet and telephone communication; that is infrastructure that we need to improve if we want new businesses or business, period, to stay here,” he said.

The Strategic Economic Advisory Council, set up by Minister of Commerce Joey Hew and utilising private-sector expertise to draft a vision for Cayman’s future, has also highlighted Maya-1 as a current weakness and a future opportunity.

Taylor is currently involved in a project to connect a sub-sea cable to Palau in Micronesia.

Once that project is completed, he said, the remote Pacific island of 10,000 people would have better bandwidth than Cayman.

He said the cost of such projects had to be considered in terms of the opportunities they create.

“Imagine what could happen if everyone had a gigabit of internet?”

Maya-1, which became operational in 2000, is a major telecommunications cable which runs from Florida and services Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, as well as Cayman.

A map of the MAYA-1 submarine cable. – Photo: www.maya-1.com

Mannisto acknowledges that putting in a new cable would be a costly project, but he believes it could facilitate the creation of a new pillar of Cayman’s economy.

Data centres, development and distribution of content, digital identity, digital payments, and digital assets are niches that Cayman could tap to expand and diversify its economy, he said.

“Tech is one of those high-growth sectors where I see a lot of opportunity for us to develop and grow here in Cayman.”

He cited the digital-identity sector as something that could, in time, become even larger than the funds industry in Cayman.

There are spin-off benefits throughout the economy and for quality of life by becoming a ‘smart island’, he added.

“It is about really leveraging tech to improve lives and make the community safer,” Mannisto said. “The largest companies in the world today are tech companies, and I expect to see more of this in the future. We need to put in place the right infrastructure for Cayman to be a leader in this sector.”

Island-wide access

Beyond the Maya-1 cable, another pressing infrastructure need is for Cayman’s fibre-optic network, which delivers high-speed broadband to homes, to be expanded across the island.

Consumers in the eastern districts and the Sister Islands, among other areas, still rely on an outdated infrastructure and receive an inferior service.

Though telecoms companies were required to go island-wide with high-speed fibre cables as part of their licensing agreements, that has not yet happened.

“It was supposed to be in East End by now, and it is not,” said Taylor. “This is where the government needs to step in.”

The relative lack of consumers in the outer districts has made it cost prohibitive for telecoms companies to build expensive infrastructure, with little prospect of a return on investment.

But utility regulator OfReg has the power to require them to do so.

Taylor believes it is time to put in place a type of Universal Service Fund which would essentially require businesses to come together to jointly fund shared infrastructure in more remote areas.

Bob Taylor

Alternatively, he said government could use the taxes it levies from these companies to fund that infrastructure.

Randy Merren, owner of C3, highlights another major issue. Access to the physical infrastructure of electricity poles and underground ducts is controlled by CUC and Flow.

He believes his company is being blocked from building out fibre because it can’t get access to this infrastructure.

The company has filed multiple disputes with the regulator but Merren says OfReg does not have the resources or the legal strength to carry out its remit of liberalising the telecoms market  in the face of resistance from the major players in the market.

“These things have to be fixed, in my mind, before we can bring a new cable to Cayman.

“To be a smart island, you need connectivity.”

The internet of things

A high-capacity, high-speed, island-wide tech infrastructure would allow Cayman to think big.

In ‘smart cities’ around the world, urban planners use the internet of things to collect data and manage assets.

Smart phone apps like Let’s Eat are expected to become more common.

One example is smart traffic lights that are able to process congestion data and adjust accordingly.

The same technology can be harnessed to make the energy and water supply more cost effective, to process people more efficiently at the airport, or to make finding a parking space in George Town something you can do with a smartphone.

In the post-COVID world, the idea of a ‘touchless environment’ could be an enormous asset, noted Lilford.

“At some stage, you will be able to arrive in Cayman, rent a car and check into a hotel using the same digital ID,” he said.

Mindset shift

The island has taken a giant leap forward in tech adoption over the past few months, with the COVID crisis forcing change that may not have happened otherwise.

Attempting to make emergency pension payouts at a time when people were confined to their homes was the catalyst for government to sanction electronically notarised documents.

Lilford is hopeful that this kind of innovative thinking will be carried through as Cayman plans its recovery. “People are starting to think differently,” he said. “Looking at something like signing a document with a pen and paper and asking, why did we need to do that?”

Everything that Cayman is now envisaging, from the growth of a tech sector to developing the fastest and best internet access, was theoretically possible before COVID.

It is the mindset change, rather than any technological breakthrough, that has perhaps been the greatest shift.

“These were opportunities that existed before but we are now thinking with more clarity and purpose about how we build new revenue streams and new sectors of the economy,” said Mannisto.

Playing catch-up

Before Cayman can become a tech leader it has significant catching up to do.

The island has the 12th most expensive broadband internet in the world, according to a 2020 survey of 203 countries by British company Cable.co.uk.

There is limited online shopping, no ride-share service and some businesses still only take cash.

Taylor points out that basic services like PayPal, Square, Venmo or similar banking apps are not available in Cayman, despite being used across the rest of the world for several years.

The barriers are not technical, he said, they are regulatory.

“Businesses don’t do these things willingly – automobile companies didn’t put in seatbelts because they were good citizens, they did it because government made them do it,” said Taylor.

The issue of Cayman’s outdated payment systems was highlighted at the Cayman Islands Digital Economy Conference held over Zoom in June.

Paul Byles, chair of that conference and a director of Digital Cayman – an industry body which advocates for tech solutions to Cayman’s problems – said it was clear that the island still lagged behind many other countries in this area.

He said Digital Cayman is currently working on a white paper with proposals to help businesses receive payments online within a matter of minutes instead of relying on cheques being sent in the mail.

The future of healthcare is digital

In healthcare, too, enthusiasm about the potential of technology is tempered by an acknowledgment that the hold-ups to progress are not purely technological.

“We have been talking about tele-medicine for a decade,” said Shomari Scott, chief business officer at Health City Cayman Islands, “but it took a pandemic to make it happen.”

Cayman Clinic’s Dr. Heidi Fahy was one of many physicians to use telemedicine to see patients during lockdown.

It wasn’t technology that was the obstacle, it was the fact that the insurance system didn’t offer a way for doctors to be paid for consultations that took place via video conferencing.

If Cayman is to seize the moment and build on the progress made during COVID-19, Scott believes tweaks to legislation and insurance codes will be necessary.

If those issues can be ironed out, he said, the potential is enormous.

Remote monitoring

The idea of monitoring patients via smartphones or digital devices has been introduced to the public consciousness during COVID.

But Scott believes this is the future of healthcare in a variety of areas.

At its hospitals in India, Narayana Health, the parent company of the East End facility, already uses an app it developed in coordination with Microsoft to securely store and instantly share medical records and information between staff.

“We believe any patient with a medical history should have medical records in their own phone,” Dr. Devi Shetty, the surgeon and entrepreneur who founded the network of hospitals, told the Cayman Compass in an interview last year.

Scott said chronic conditions like diabetes could be monitored via self-reporting on smartphones, while cutting healthcare costs and achieving better outcomes for patients.

More generally, he said, tele-medicine could be used to avoid unnecessary visits to the doctor or the emergency room.

Shomari Scott

Citing a study in the Journal of Managed Care, he said patients who used tele-medicine have lower incidences of depression, anxiety and stress, as well as 38% fewer hospital admissions.

“If you make it easy, you have more compliance, less no-shows, you don’t have to worry about transport or sitting in a waiting room, when you can do it remotely,” Scott said.

However, none of this can be achieved, he cautioned, without fast, high-speed internet that is accessible and affordable to all.

Internet as a human right

With the shift to a digital world comes concern over equal access.

If business opportunities, along with access to government services, media and high-quality healthcare, become dependent on being connected, shouldn’t internet be considered a basic right?

“Yes,” said Scott, who also led a panel on the Strategic Economic Advisory Council that investigated social inequality.

The best example of how unequal access to computers and the internet can exacerbate social problems is seen in the remote-learning experiment forced on schools during lockdown.

An Office of Education Standards report on remote learning found issues in digital access and lack of a cohesive strategy.

Almost one in 10 children in Cayman’s public schools were not connected and likely suffered in comparison to their peers who did have web access, according to a report by the Office of Education Standards.

Scott is an ardent believer that Cayman’s future is digital, but he says that can’t happen if some are left behind by the times.

“As we come to depend on technology and the internet, in particular for essential services, affordable high-quality internet starts to become a necessity rather than a luxury,” he said.

Efficient access to healthcare, government services and the retail market could start to depend on being connected.

“We don’t want to create two classes of people – those that have access to high-speed internet and those that don’t. We have to deal with this now,” he said.

‘Dream big and make it happen’

For Mannisto, having the fastest and best internet in Cayman will help build a stronger new economy with a leading technology sector. Making sure it is cheap and available all across the islands will ensure everyone can participate in that economy.

He said new industries, like digital identity and data centres, along with having leading technology companies develop and distribute content from Cayman, would boost opportunity and wealth in the islands to pay back the investment.

“We have a tremendous opportunity to come out of this crisis stronger than we went into it,” Mannisto said.

He acknowledged Cayman has a long way to go and much ground to cover, but believes the island has to embrace the future and leverage the strengths that have made it a leader in the financial services sector.

“I like to think big, but it is realistic as well,” he said. “All these ideas are achievable. It is a big dream, it is a big vision but this is what the future of Cayman looks like.”

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