Just over a decade and a half ago “H – T – T – P – Colon – Slash – Slash – W – W – W – Dot” was just meaningless gibberish. Today, on a daily basis, this string of characters starts us off on journeys all over the world where we can see and hear through text, graphics, audio and video, anything that can be written, said, sung, photographed, drawn, or recorded. This is made possible by the Internet; a global computer network that links millions of computers all over the world by satellite, cable, telephone and radio.
The Internet was started in the 1960s by the U.S. Department of Defense and was funded by the U.S. government. Because the U.S. government funded the network, commercial applications were not allowed. Only military bases, universities and corporations with defense department contracts comprised the network, which became known as ARPANET. In order to allow commercialization of the Internet, this network was split into two connected networks in 1984 with the military side becoming known as MILNET and the academic side retaining the name ARPANET which over time became known simply as “the Internet”.
During the remainder of the 1980’s and into the early 1990’s, the Internet was used mainly for email, newsgroups and file transfers. In March of 1989, Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal while working at the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Switzerland that became the basis for the World Wide Web. In 1990 he developed the first Web Server.
By the end of 1992 there were approximately 100 websites on the World Wide Web and the number of Internet users broke the one million mark. The invention of Tim Berners-Lee was quickly seized upon by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois where the first graphical user interface web browser, Mosaic was developed. The Mosaic web browser was released in April of 1993 and took the Internet by storm, tremendously popularizing the Web by making it easy to locate and read multiple kinds of information from various Internet services. By the end of 1993 the number of Internet users exceeded 15 million in 70 countries and by the end of 1994 there were over 10,000 websites.
During the mid 1990’s I heard quite a bit about the Internet, with descriptive phrases like “Surfing the Net” and “Information Superhighway”. Although I was intrigued and desperately wanted to actually experience the Internet first hand, I was unable to conceptualize what the Internet was truly like. In 1996 I signed up with a local Internet Service Provider, and have been fascinated, amazed, enthralled – and hooked – ever since!
What I discovered, simply put, was that the Internet created the “Global Village” that I had heard so much about a decade or two before. On the Internet there are no national boundaries, and physical distance is practically meaningless. It allows communication and information sharing with businesses and individuals from all over the world, for just the cost of an Internet connection. And the best part is that this can all be done from the comfort of your own home or office.
I become increasingly curious as to how websites and web pages were put together, and with the resources available on the Web, I began to spend every spare moment I had studying and practicing how to write web pages. One thing that I noticed during this time was the lack of presence The Bahamas had on the Internet. As I became more proficient in web page authoring, I developed a vision of a “Bahamian Web Community” incorporating a “cyberspace community centre” where Bahamians could gather to see what’s new, look up local services and products, and provide web links to diverse Bahamian businesses and individuals who shared the common desire to be part of the Internet revolution.
The decision was made to make my vision a reality, and being a patriotic Bahamian, I wanted to use the Bahamian domain name extension .bs. I researched (on the web, naturally) and discovered that the College of The Bahamas was the owner of the top level domain for The Bahamas. An attempt was made to register directly with C.O.B., however I was informed that registration had to be done through their Registration Agent, Bahamas Telecommunications Corporation. With perseverance, on the 15th of April, 1998, I applied and paid for, through Batelco, the Bahamian Internet domain name of “tropitec.bs” with the goal of creating a Bahamian Web Community and designing, developing and hosting Bahamian websites.
It proved very frustrating as the days turned into weeks without my domain name registration going through. During this time my website could only be accessed through its IP number, which was hard to remember and not aesthetically pleasing. Calls to Batelco and C.O.B. indicated that there was a considerable amount of friction between these two entities regarding the .bs domains, and I was caught in the middle! After waiting almost eight weeks I withdrew my registration request then registered online with the extension .net and was up and running within 48 hours!
During the eighteen months or so that I worked on establishing and maintaining The Bahamian Web Community and writing web sites, I strongly felt that The Bahamas was being left behind as far as the Internet was concerned. The major obstacle at that time to utilization of the World Wide Web by regular Bahamians was the high cost of Internet access. During the mid to late 1990’s when unlimited dialup access to the Internet cost less than $20.00 per month in the United States, the cost in The Bahamas was $250.00 per month. Because of this high cost, the Internet was considered irrelevant to most Bahamian businesses and individuals. Unfortunately, it also appeared that the view of the Internet being irrelevant was shared by most members of Government.
Not being able to obtain a Bahamian domain name was an indication of this mindset. Five weeks after applying for a Bahamian domain name without results, I wrote a three page letter to the then Deputy Prime Minister as his portfolio included telecommunications. In that letter I stated my opinion that The Bahamas as a nation was forfeiting its Internet presence by not registering Bahamian domain names on a timely basis, and that The Bahamas was not fully participating in, nor developing its presence on the web. I made some recommendations to alleviate the situation and stressed the importance of recognizing the global competitiveness of the Internet. Not only was this letter never replied to, there wasn’t even an acknowledgement of receipt.
It has been over six years since my attempt to register a .bs domain, and I don’t know how easy (or hard) it is to obtain one now, but it is noted that of the 42 Bahamas Web Award nominees, only three domains are Bahamian registered. On the positive side, the last six years have brought about a substantial reduction in the cost of dialup Internet access, plus we now have the availability of broadband Internet access via cable or satellite.
Although the desired traffic for The Bahamian Web Community was Bahamians, most of the traffic was from non-Bahamians. A few U.S. businessmen who were planning ahead for the time when the U.S. moratorium waiving sales tax on e-commerce would be lifted, inquired about setting up offshore e-commerce websites in The Bahamas. I called a few of the local banks and was informed that they had no intentions of becoming involved in e-commerce. I then called the Central Bank of The Bahamas to find out their policy regarding e-commerce. After being transferred to half a dozen people, I was told that not only did the Central Bank not have a policy on e-commerce, they did not even have a statement on it. I hung up the phone with the thought of more lost opportunities. Fortunately, this situation has been rectified as The Bahamas finally developed a Policy Statement on Electronic Commerce that was published in January of last year.
It is important for us to recognize what the Internet means and the consequences it can have from a Bahamian perspective. Internationally, more and more businesses are going on-line, providing an ever widening range of products and services, secure on-line credit card payments, and providing special arrangements for export orders. Most local merchants lament the number of Bahamians who travel to the U.S. to buy products, goods and services, bypassing local business establishments. The Internet is accelerating this trend by allowing Bahamians to save the cost of airfare, rental cars and hotel rooms by using the Internet to purchase from abroad in their own homes and offices.
The Bahamas prospered in the worldwide marketplace despite the fact that it remained basically isolated from regional, hemispheric, and global trade groups. This can easily be seen by the fact that tourism is our number one industry, followed by financial services. However our days of isolation are basically over as we are under increasing pressures to compete in the structured environment of rules and regulations by treaty and agreement through the regional Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME), the hemispheric Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and the global World Trade Organization (WTO).
We need to explore ways and means of capitalizing on our most successful economic sectors and create new economic opportunities. With Tourism being our number one industry and Financial Services in second place, it is clear that our strength is in the service sectors. The fastest growing service based industries today involve the Internet. The Internet represents the ultimate free trade environment as it levels the playing field so that company size and geographic location become minor considerations. If we play our cards right, the Internet can be our greatest ally in the new global arena of trade liberalization. If the sun, sand and sea can attract tourists, why not use it to attract entire Internet industries?
Websites can be created and uploaded anywhere in the world where there is Internet access. We should encourage the establishment of an international web authoring community here in The Bahamas. On-line purchasing by Bahamians is inevitable. What better way to replace this loss to our local economy then by developing an electronic commerce industry? Credit card charges made for electronic commerce can be processed anywhere in the world where there is Internet access, and our tax structure and the right legislation can attract foreign and transnational businesses to select The Bahamas as their e-commerce center of choice.
As a nation we need to fully utilize the Internet within our borders in order to foster the various industries that can develop as a result. As many Bahamians as possible need to become ‘Internet savvy’ by having access to the Internet, and this process should start in the primary schools where ever possible. We should then encourage our high school students to consider computer and information sciences as their majors in college. We need to start thinking outside of the box in order to develop a Government and private sector environment that is friendly towards the Internet industry.
Today there are tens of millions of websites and more that 900 million Internet users world wide, and it is expected that in another six months or so the number of Internet users will break the one billion mark. With forethought, planning, and education, combined with experience, we can become a Mecca of Internet related services by doing what we do best, providing services to our global customers.
You have staked out a section of the Information Superhighway for The Bahamas and have done us proud. For this I salute you all.