The Puerto Rico Broadband Task Force, a 12-member public-private coalition organized a year ago, is laying the foundation to more than double current broadband adoption levels across the island to at least 70 percent by 2015, up from the current 31 percent, and expedite a significant increase in download speeds within the next five to eight years.
Furthermore, the group’s strategic plan calls for working with local Internet Service Providers to be able to offer minimum download speeds of 4 Mbps (megabits per second) to 98 percent of all local households by 2015, and of at least 100 Mbps to 85 percent of local households by the year 2020, said Juan Eugenio Rodríguez, the government’s chief information officer and head of the task force.
To attain those goals, the group is proposing several initiatives:
- Fostering an aggressive expansion of local digital literacy programs targeted to marginalized or lower-income communities through a partnership between the public sector and existing nonprofits already working to bridge the digital divide;
- Promoting more mobile broadband usage by touting it as a less expensive and technically easier option to access the web;
- Pushing for an aggressive expansion of public computing centers across the island and expansion of digital literacy programs in these centers;
- Launching a public-private partnership to develop targeted awareness campaigns regarding the benefits of the online interaction for both personal use and small business enterprises;
- And, laying down strategies to address the affordability challenge and to expand computer or other end-user device and subscription penetration across Puerto Rico.
During a roundtable discussion with local business reporters a day ahead of today’s public unveiling of the strategy, Rodríguez said the ultimate goal is to improve Puerto Rico’s standing in the hemisphere with regards to broadband availability, usage and adoption.
“In Puerto Rico, 86 percent of the homes have broadband available to them, at the lowest speed of 768 Mbps, but only 31 percent of them use it. This is something that can be improved, given that the average in other states in terms of availability to the home is about 95 percent,” he said. “In terms of business use of broadband, we compare favorably with the U.S. mainland.”
Seventy-four percent of Puerto Rican companies are already connected to broadband Internet and are likely reaping the benefits. Studies cited by the Broadband Task Force indicate that companies that connect to broadband Internet have the potential to obtain a 37 percent growth in income.
However, when it comes to residential use, one of the main stumbling blocks standing in the way of a broader adoption rate is a lack of awareness of the benefits of subscribing to broadband, said Eduardo Díaz, president of the Puerto Rico Internet Society.
“As part of the study we conducted over the past year, we found out that what Puerto Rico consumers need is education, and one way of addressing that is by establishing a pilot program with the University of Puerto Rico to reach communities adjacent to each of the 11 campuses,” he said. “The pilot program will show us what works and what doesn’t when it comes to spurring broadband adoption.”
The money is there
Another significant obstacle that is holding back broadband proliferation on the island is the cost of deploying infrastructure and services, as well as the inability of many citizens to pay for a computer and monthly plans to offset those investments.
However, both the local and federal government are taking steps to address those issues, Rodríguez said.
Late last month, the Federal Communications Commission released a public notice, announcing the availability of $25 million in funding to motivate eligible telecommunications carriers to come up with “creative ideas” to spur broadband adoption among low-income households across the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
In Puerto Rico, 43 percent of residents either do not own a computer or believe broadband service is too expensive, something the FCC is calling upon carriers and nonprofits to also address through the funding program.
Meanwhile, Rodríguez said the local government is also willing to do its part to bring down costs of delivering broadband by making public state roads available for the installation of fiber-optic conduits. Whether rural roads controlled by municipal governments will also be made available remains to be seen.
“This week, the Department of Transportation and Public Works will be signing a collaborative agreement with the Telecommunications Regulatory Board to begin taking inventory and working on a strategy to market the use of state roads as public rights-of-way in a manner that makes sense,” he said.
Although the logistics and costs associated with the use of public facilities have yet to be determined, Rodríguez said it will most likely represent a cost-effective way for ISPs and broadband providers to be able to lay down the so-called “last mile” of fiber-optic infrastructure to reach remote areas of the island.
During the meeting with members of the media, Karen Larson, vice president of Critical Hub Networks, said while the use of public roads is a viable solution, unsurprisingly, providers are concerned about theft, given the recent negative trend by thieves who strip the copper and other metals off of anything that is exposed.
“Theft is a big concern among broadband providers because it increases costs and service interruptions,” she said. “The message is that if you steal fiber optic cables, you can’t do anything with it because it’s not copper.”
Broadband as a vehicle for growth
Aside from the obvious benefits of being able to surf the web quicker and download content without experimenting the bothersome “buffering,” why is broadband adoption so important?
“This is not about the technology. This is about having a better quality of life and aspiring to have a competitive Puerto Rico that can generate wealth and be able to provide better education and health services to its people,” said Rodríguez, acknowledging that broadband is still both more expensive and slower in Puerto Rico when compared to at least 11 other U.S. jurisdictions.
That said, the government is pushing to turn many public areas and buildings into wi-fi hotspots to provide free access. Last week, the Gov. Luis Fortuño administration announced plans to enable free wi-fi connections at the island’s 78 town squares, at an investment of $3 million.