Even with challenges emanating from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Universal Service Fund (USF) continues to be a beacon of hope in connecting communities across the island with free Internet access.
As at the end of March 2022, 101 community access Wi-Fi sites have been connected, with the remaining 88 to be done soon.
This all-island government initiative where many communities are, for the first time, having Internet access, free or otherwise, has been resonating well
with the public, notably students and teachers.
“We have to give credit where credit is due,” said Principal, Sherwood Content Primary School in Portland, Marlise Cowie-Adiansingh.
“Many students, especially since COVID and where we had to revert to online classes, have been using the free Internet access to do their schoolwork, something they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do without this USF initiative,” she added.
For communities (major towns) in parishes, such as St. James, St. Ann, Westmoreland, St. Thomas, St. Elizabeth, Portland, Clarendon, Manchester and most recently Hanover, the free Internet access has also been contributing to an increase in productivity, especially at a time when technology is being viewed as an invaluable tool.
Minister of Science, Energy and Technology, Hon. Daryl Vaz, whose ministry has portfolio responsibility for the USF, told JIS News that not only has Internet connectivity become a huge necessity but that it also “changes perspectives and opens doors of opportunities for people”.
“For many rural Jamaicans, Internet connectivity is a luxury. With more than 44 per cent of Jamaicans living in rural areas, this ought not to be so. Residents of rural communities should have the same level of internet connectivity as persons living in urban Jamaica,” Mr. Vaz argued.
He said that in this regard the USF and its Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Daniel Dawes, must be commended for being resolute in delivering the free technology to the people of Jamaica, enabling them to connect to the Internet and access online resources for learning and social improvement.
“The USF is on a mission to enable a digital society through universal access to the Internet and digital inclusion. The thrust is being realised through the Connect Jamaica (Public Wi-Fi) programme, Community Wi-Fi Initiative, and the Community Access Points programme,” Minister Vaz added.
Member of Parliament for St. Elizabeth South West and Minister without Portfolio in the Office of the Prime Minister, Hon. Floyd Green, said he is pleased that the USF has made its way into Black River and that the free Internet access will be greatly appreciated.
“In today’s digital world, access to the Internet is critical, especially in rural Jamaica. This free Wi-Fi access will play an important role in supporting the business and communication needs of Black River residents and those who frequent the parish capital,” the Minister explained at a recent launch.
“Additionally, this strongly supports our drive of creating the region’s first digitally interactive cultural destination,” he added.
For CEO Dawes, what has been accomplished, so far, is only the beginning, noting that the USF will be broadening its range across the island with projects and programmes for “our” valued stakeholders as “we seek” to increase Internet access across Jamaica.
Mr. Dawes told reporters at a recent launch of the free Wi Fi service in Lucea, Hanover, that the cost to the USF to provide the Internet service to the parish capital was approximately $15 million.
“We will also have to pay a monthly fee… . We will have to pay the provider of the service. We will be doing three community Wi-Fi establishments for eastern Hanover and three for western Hanover,” he added.
The CEO also confirmed that the USF is expected to complete the targeted 189 Wi-Fi hotspots across the country by the end of May 2022.
“The feedback towards the establishment of the Wi-Fi hotspots has been tremendous. The people are glad for them… and are using them to their advantage,” he added.
For her part, Member of Parliament for Hanover Western, Tamika Davis, who also spoke at the Lucea launch, said the USF must be commended for its yeoman service to the people of Jamaica, noting that “the digital platform is where the entire world is going”.
“Internet access is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. We have found this to be true, especially against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has caused us, more than any other time, to realise how dependent we are on the Internet,” she argued.
An agency under the umbrella of the Ministry of Science, Energy and Technology, the USF is mandated to ensure access to information and communication tools to facilitate ICT development in Jamaica.
The USF has, over the years, commissioned more than 318 community access point (CAP) sites to facilitate Internet access to underserved areas in Jamaica. Sixty-two of these CAP sites are in western Jamaica.