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Rise of the Caribbean Mobile Market

It is no secret that in the Caribbean people are crazy about their cell phones. In fact, the Caribbean has one of the highest levels of mobile phone penetration in the world.

According to a report from BuddeComm, an Australia-based telecom research firm, mobile phone penetration in Latin America and the Caribbean reached an estimated 80% in early 2009, well above the world average which was about 58%. The report stated that Latin America and the Caribbean together now account for an estimated 12% of the world’s 3.97 billion mobile subscribers.

But there is something even more distinctive in the Caribbean’s mobile landscape. In the past few years we have witnessed the meteoric rise in popularity of smart phones such as RIM’s Blackberry devices, the Apple iPhone and, most recently, a plethora of mobile devices running the Google-developed Android operating system. These smartphones are multifunctional gadgets that now allow us to do much more than make calls. They enable us to fit into our pockets the functionality we once expected only from personal computers and laptops. They allow users to check email, surf the web, listen to live radio, play music, update social networking accounts like Facebook and Twitter, check bank balances and much more.
Smarter Phones, Smarter Apps

Perhaps one of the most significant developments that attended the rise of the smartphone, is the evolution of the mobile app. Mobile apps are software programs specially designed to run on mobile phones. According to the latest data from Nielsen, a US research firm, mobile apps are popular even among users who are still using lower end “feature phones”. Without a doubt, mobile apps represent the next wave of the mobile revolution.

Exponential Growth

The mobile app market has experienced explosive growth globally. Business large and small are now joining the rush to stake their brand-claim on the mobile landscape in the form of an app. The usual suspects among global Internet companies are already taking advantage, providing apps that are tailored for the rapidly growing range of mobile devices. For example, Facebook sat in the number one spot for all smart phone varieties except for Android OS, where it took second place after Google Maps. Music-related apps, News apps and Games are also very popular.

How do consumers access all these apps? The answer depends on the mobile platform running on your device. Vendors have all come up with different names for their mobile app repositories. If you’re using a BlackBerry, you’ll download your apps from the BlackBerry App World. Apple has the App Store; Nokia, the Ovi Store; Microsoft, the Marketplace and Google, the Android Market.

According to Distimo, an app store analytics company, Apple grew the most in 2010 in terms of the absolute number of applications in the United States. The Apple App Store for iPhone doubled the total number of apps in its catalog during the past year to almost 300,000. The total number of apps available for Google Android Market today is 130,000, which is 6 times the number of applications available one year ago. BlackBerry App World and Nokia Ovi Store showed triple digit growth in 2010, to nearly 18,000 applications and 25,000 applications, respectively. Microsoft Windows Phone 7 entered the party late and now has just over 5000 apps available.

New Era, Caribbean Opportunity

What does all of this spell for the Caribbean region? In a word, OPPORTUNITY! In a region that is world renowned for its creativity and with one of the highest levels per capita of smart phones on the planet, the mobile revolution presents a tremendous opportunity for the development of Caribbean apps. Products and services tailored for Caribbean society, Caribbean interests and Caribbean needs. Caribbean entrepreneurs, governments, businesses and organizations can lead the way by optimizing their information and service delivery capacity to take advantage of the power in the hands of citizens and consumers.

Still, seizing the opportunity will neither be cheap nor straightforward. For mobile operators in the Caribbean such as Cable & Wireless (LIME), Digicel, CLARO, and Telecommunications Services of Trinidad & Tobago (TSTT), shifting consumer appetite from SMS and BBM services to always-on data plans will require strategic investment in infrastructure, new value-added services and consumer awareness initiatives. Most mobile in the networks in the Caribbean still run the old GPRS/EDGE technology. This makes it difficult for consumers to experience or appreciate the full value of the mobile web, particular on the higher-end handsets which support web-based apps as well as audio and video streaming. In the Jamaica market the three major providers now all support 3G. However providers are yet to provide firm timetables for rolling out 3G and 4G technologies in the other markets in the region.

Another challenge is expected to be changing consumer behavior in a region dominated by pre-paid users. Since the liberalization of mobile market in the Caribbean about a decade ago, competition has been so intense that operators there have seen a steady decline in average revenue per user (ARPU). Operators are making less profit while compelled to provide new services to growing numbers of subscribers with increasingly sophisticated needs. Price pressures, combined with a demand by consumers to do more than just talk and text on their phones, is forcing carriers to place more focus on value-added service (VAS) offerings. This is where the proliferation of mobile apps, designed specifically for regional markets can play a major role.

The wave of smart phones flooding regional markets presents exciting prospects both for operators and consumers. Both constituents now have the option to look to a range of apps tailored to regional audiences and tuned to regional networks. These apps can deliver services such as, mobile Internet, music, video, games, info services and transactions for which carriers can charge extra. The indigenous capacity to support this is already in place and the region already has the proven capacity to develop apps that service global needs. Antigua once had a strong gaming software development industry (until US-initiated WTO dispute over cross-border remote gambling killed it off) and Barbados was once a hub for Y2K programming services. Trinidad and Jamaica also have a solid history of indigenous software development. Of course there are also legions of independent software developers scattered across the region. Together, these represent the foundation for a potentially significant Caribbean mobile application development industry. What is now needed is the awareness, the encouragement and the incentive to actively begin building the Caribbean mobile marketplace.

The time is now and the window is open for the Caribbean to position itself to take advantage of this new mobile revolution.

By Bevil Wooding, Director of Caribbean Affairs, ARIN

Bevil provides strategic advice and operational support on cybersecurity, public policy and critical Internet infrastructure. Follow Wooding on Twitter: @bevilwooding and Facebook: facebook.com/bevilwooding or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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