It’s ironic that I’m writing this at 3am while my internet provider is struggling to reconnect me to that service after well over 15 hours without any access.

I have data on my phone, from another provider, so…

It’s not an essential in life, but it’s has nearly become that way, moreso in the period where many are forced to spend almost all day and night at home doing the work and study and other things they would normally do elsewhere.

So, Flow isn’t flowing and many people’s days’ activities ground to a halt and may still be stuck when they wake today. I’ve asked often what are the economic costs of an unstable and unreliable internet service.

We know that some of the problems are not of the company’s making, with vandals wreaking havoc recently:

How unpatriotic that is! But, we know that there’s an element in the society hell-bent on bringing it to its knees, one way or another.

The idea for this post came before I was cut off in my browsing prime as my internet connection dropped for the n-th time and I wondered how often that occurs and how it affects our personal and national output and productivity.

Living through the pandemic has thrown up many of socioeconomic ills and inequities, as well as many inefficiencies and incompleteness. In Jamaica, one area where this has been stark involves telecommunications, especially in terms of basic internet access as well as facilitating financial transactions.

My problem, believe it or not, is at the good end of the spectrum: I normally have good access and am not subject to hours or days without the service for which I pay. We know many do not have anything like a reliable service at home, or even any service at all. How that has affected life has been shown most in the unequal access many children now have to online schooling. About 100 rural and remote schools have no internet access.

The need to create a more robust and widespread access to internet services has long been recognised and was stressed again late last year, with inaugural CONNECTECOMM E-commerce Conference at Jamaica Pegasus hotel. Minister Fayval Williams’s presentation was titled, ‘Jamaica’s Digital Journey – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’. The minister hit all the right notes:

“Digital technologies are transforming the skills people need to get employed and remain in employment; digital technologies are transforming what people do in their jobs, and digital technologies are transforming how and where people work,”

“You and I know that digital technologies are improving lives, and are accelerating progress and prosperity. So of course, as a Government, we embrace digital technologies with all that it’s capable of allowing us to do today and all of its glorious promises never before imagined,”

She also pointed out that a country risks getting left behind if its Government does not have a clear vison of how the country’s digital future will evolve. “This Government has a clear vision,” she declared.

We’re living through what that really means.

Jamaican schools have been back ‘in class’ for about a month, and the need for online schooling has shown the yawning gap in access in a crippling way, with the disparity of online educational opportunities. The Gleaner editorial addressed this late last month:

‘Large numbers of schools are not equipped to seriously deliver online/digital teaching, and even when they can, large swathes of children will struggle to be part of the process. Many homes lack computers and Internet service. While smartphones are seemingly ubiquitous, Internet connectivity using these devices is sporadic for poorer Jamaicans. They can’t afford continuous service.’

We can put Jamaica’s situation into context by referring to a study of US children’s access to computers during 1984 through 2015.

In the US context, racial differences were also notable, but so too were those related to household income:

How less income worsened access to computers. Admittedly, the computer is no longer an essential tool for internet access, with tablets and smart phones increasingly the internet access on-ramp for many, especially children.

Whatever Jamaica did (including measures that put free WiFi in public spaces like the Half Way Tree Transportation Centre and most recently Sam Sharpe Square in Montego Bay, as well as on JUTC buses, helped with causal and short-term internet access for many. But, sustained work and study cannot be based on such provisions. Whether fiber optics or satellite or more cell towers or a range of other hardware investments are needed, they need to be rolled out fast. A dedicated 24-hour education cable channel and satellite Internet are the key elements in a plan to reach more than 31,000 students islandwide currently cut off from COVID-19-triggered online lessons due to lack of Internet access, is being provided by ReadyTV and its CEO Chris Dehring.

So, the Internet superhighway on-ramp is being built and the road looks better now than it did several months ago. But, let’s hope that, with hurricane season coming, we dont find that after a few months the road is full of potholes and journeys are as hard as when the road was bad before.