Puerto Rico Makes Plans to Become Silicon Island

By Samuel Greengard Print this article Print
providing high-speed access

The commonwealth of Puerto Rico invests in fiber to build world-class technology and provide high-speed access to most of the private businesses in Old San Juan.

As the digital age takes shape, it's increasingly clear that high-speed Internet access is critical for both consumers and businesses. Without fast and dependable connections, everything from education to economic output is threatened. As a result, there's a growing consensus that investments in broadband infrastructure are critical.

The latest entry in the high-speed Internet derby is Puerto Rico. The commonwealth, which boasts a population of approximately 3.7 million and encompasses about 3,515 square miles, recently announced a $17 million technology investment designed to bring fiber to a key section of its capital city, San Juan.

"There is a clear and proven correlation between broadband adoption and economic growth," says Giancarlo González, CIO for the commonwealth of Puerto Rico. He states that a 10 percent rise in broadband adoption typically results in a 1 percent increase in gross domestic product.

Puerto Rico began studying how fiber could benefit the commonwealth a couple of years ago. While the value proposition seemed clear from the start, the government faced some political and practical barriers. For one thing, some citizens opposed government involvement in the project on the grounds that it shouldn't compete with the private sector.

For another, "We found that there was a lack of understanding about what broadband offers and how it is beneficial," González explains. "Many people and businesses say they don't need fast broadband, but if you poll them, you find that Internet connectivity is their number-one priority."

But Puerto Rico also faced basic infrastructure challenges in Old San Juan, including how to lay fiber in old buildings and existing roadways. It is using robotic devices to inspect underground pipes and string the fiber through pipes and other conduit.

The project, dubbed Gigabit Island, covers an area of about 2.3 square miles encompassing Old San Juan and the Isla Verde, Santurce and Condado districts. It is scheduled to be operational by the end of 2015 and will provide high-speed access to 85 percent of private businesses.

"The project does not supplant the private sector," González points out. "It allows the private sector to compete and offer better services. We believed that we had to break free from the traditional cost model and disrupt the market so we could spur faster economic development."

Although 79 percent of businesses already use broadband and only about 5 percent rely on dial-up service, government officials wanted to boost speeds far beyond the typical 10-to-40 megabit range, particularly for financial services firms, health care providers and other organizations that rely on teleworkers. In 2010, remote workers totaled about 12 percent of the commonwealth's workforce, but that figure currently stands at 22 percent.

Puerto Rico is also making other technology investments to boost its capabilities and image. Another project, an open data portal, is already live. Its goal is to collect and provide data that helps businesses, educational institutions, transportation providers, energy companies, health care firms and consumer products companies. It also provides a wealth of data—including statistics—for consumers,.

"Puerto Rico needs to be a part of the global economy," González points out. "By boosting Internet speeds and dependability and creating a better business and data platform, we are able to be more competitive. The investments in infrastructure and technology will provide important economic and social returns."

This article was originally published on 2014-07-09

Samuel Greengard is a contributing writer for Baseline.

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