REPORT #108 Sept 1999
WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO MAKE BELIZE THE SOFTWARE SILICON VALLEY OF THE CENTRAL AND SOUTHERN AMERICAS?


Produced by the Belize Development Trust

About seven or eight years ago, we put this question in some books we wrote on Belize. Since that time an Internet Committee was formed in Belize, which now seems defunct; but which did at the time assist in technology sharing for hooking up school computer systems and internet connections. There is also now a college in Belmopan the capital, teaching computer courses and different software applications. On the down side, the BTL monopoly and other issues did not allow nationwide installation of the necessary infra-structure for land line telephones, computer installations and free internet services. The one FREENET was shut down by the privately owned sovereign telecommunications monopoly known as BTL.

Governments, both UDP and the PUP over the last 12 years, still do not seem more than mildly interested in computer technology. Part seems to be fear of the cost, the other part seems to be lack of practical experience in the field and inability to create the GRANTS to get a computer technological society widespread throughout the six districts of Belize.

In the private sector, business has jumped on the bandwagon of computer technology and in my own village of Caye Caulker, a recent survey showed that more than half of the businesses and homes had a computer. Caye Caulker is fortunate though, they also have the infra-structure in both telephones and electricity to make computer technology work, even though they are an isolated barrier reef small island. The only drawback being the financially prohibitive prices charged by the telecommunications monopoly for internet time. This story is repeated around Belize, whereever a community has both telephone and electrical infra-structure. Unfortunately, large parts of the six districts comprising the nation of Belize still have neither of these basic infra-structure things.

What things would a government have to do, to encourage development of Belize, as a software Silicon Valley? No.1 of course would be the supply of a land line telephone to each home in the country, No.2 would be the supply of electricity. No.3 would be FREE INTERNET service, or a modest paid for service in the realm of $5 per month. No. 4 Would be the establishment of a two year training college degree in software development.

Should we even try to get such infra-structure widespread throughout the six district nation of Belize? Let us look at some figures for the State of Florida in the USA.

While local County governments and City governments in the State of Florida do not seem to be aware of the impact of Silicon Valley type business, the Federal statistics show another story. The USA Labor statistics show that high tech in Florida represents 46% of the State of Florida EXPORTS. It has a payroll of $7.8 billion, ranks sixth nationally in the USA for high tech employment and on average pays an employee $17,000 a year for the lower paid jobs such as data entry. The Silicon Valley aspects of computer technology in Florida has grown without any conscious awareness, or encouragement from local County or City governments. The major factors seem to be the BI-LINGUAL NATURE of the population, proximity to South American and other International markets. Plus, while County governments such as Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami follow bureaucratic policies that punish new business with excessive taxes, zoning problems, code violation fines and other penalties that discourage new business. (They are more orientated into preserving high salaries for local government bureaucrats at the expense of any encouragement of business otherwise.) The high tech aspects of computer technology has grown anyway. There are numerous reasons for this. In software creation, the highest local job maker, the internet provides a field that is international in scope. The work can be done from home on a home office computer with undeclared permits and in violation of codes, and zoning enforcements. A business that develops and sells software applications can be located in several countries and numerous cities and counties in a loose knit web of connectivity from homes via the telephone land line. The growth of Software creation and exporting has thus grown DESPITE local governments and for the most part unknown to them. The Federal statistics however, show the impact financially on the local economy, in payroll taxes and deductions and other fees that are reported. While the business atmosphere of the County government and some City governments are anti-business, the climate is sub- tropical and there are many water places for beautiful recreation. So the climate is a big draw in bringing technical people to South Florida, especially if you live in the north, blizzard prone freezing sectors of the northern USA. Companies like Citrix Systems Inc. are a $248.6 million Fort Lauderdale software company. It was founded in 1989 and employs 700 people. At least 220 of them are now millionares due to stock options in lieu of salary during start up phases.

The USA House Telecommunications and Utilities Committee in public hearings found certain criteria for the development of a Silicon Valley high-tech Software Industry in South Florida.

1) You need high quality education, from elementary school through graduate college.

2) People want to live where there are good schools. They are technically specialized academic and salary orientated. Good schools are needed to provide the workers in any software industry.

3) Internet literacy is compulsory for elementary schools! That means teachers are teaching typing and very young students how to use search engines and search the internet as a matter of course for homework assignments. ( Our Standards 4,5, & 6 )

4) College level and post graduate level degrees up to Phd level are required to stay on the cutting edge of technology changes.

5) There is a world wide shortage of trained people, so education and education systems mean a lot to forming companies in places like Belize, if they aspired to become the Silicon Valley of the Americas and Caribbean.

Broward County just north of Miami Dade County is much more advanced in these goals. Miami Dade County is bogged down in poverty orientated project housing, welfare recipients and corrupt government; geared to creating a civil service based economy using Federal and State tax subsidies. Broward County to the north however, has a different outlook. Here you can train yourself to be a computer programmer in High School, or as an adult working a regular job, doing night courses in subjects like Unix, C++ and Java Script. ( courses can be credit, or non-credit ), ( see an earlier report on Development Issues on the Belize Electronic and Resource Development Library at: http://AmbergrisCaye.com/BzLibrary )

The Broward County Community College has created a two year "software developer" certification course, designed by a bunch of companies belonging to the American Electronic Association Companies. There is nothing comparable in the Miami Dade County, High School, or Community College system adjoining to the south. The certification course taking two years was created to supply students with the skills the Silicon Valley type companies need. On graduation, the students are snapped up immediately with salaries starting around $40,000 to $60,000 a year. There is a shortage of skilled people. Just a simple two year college course designed to serve the new companies wanting to move into South Florida, or start new companies here because of the sub- tropical climate and recreational atmosphere. ( Wendy, Diane and Tina, are you reading this above? - Just two years of studies to get $45,000 USA a year! )

High-tech companies in a Silicon Valley atmosphere can be harmed quickly by ignorant tax policies. Even insignificant changes in State regulation can harm them. So State and Local governments find they now have to go on-line to offer services. Something similar is happening in Belize; but for a month, I have not been able to find an e-mail address for the Minister of Public Works in Belmopan, Belize. Belize is going to have to move to REAL TIME government services ON-LINE. ( Workshops for bureaucrats anyone? )

Belize needs a THINK TANK and a cabinet position under this current pyramidal political structure, for technology, grant writing and seeking, and a commission for high technology development. If Belize, does not consciously intend and act in REAL TIME to provide infra-structure as best it can, as rapidly as it can, to the nation as a whole; the benefits of creating a Software Development Silicon Valley Industry will pass Belize by. Belize has much more to offer in the form of recreational and climate service to North American companies than South Florida. I myself, would favor the Corozal District myself, due to rainfall patterns and shopping opportunities in Mexico. But individuals of the same company based in Corozal area, should also be able to telecommute by phone land lines via the computer from the remote hills of the Toledo District, or San Ignacio. What kind of alternative economic incentives can be offered to entrepreneurs from abroad to bring them to Belize to start their software writing, exporting companies? Not the tired old stuff we have had on the books for 35 years which have not worked hardly at all. The Silicon Valley type industries are based on solid infra-structure ( electricity and telephone lines ), a trained mind working with a team, with trained skills and a simple computer. Reliable electricity, telephone hookups and FREE INTERNET are all components of this infra-structure. Development of a two year degree at the Community College level- for ANY COLLEGES IN BELIZE! ( Just copy the one from Broward County Community College for a curriculum.) There are GRANTS available from MCI ( already in Belize ), Microsoft, Apple and numerous others. I do not even know the equivalents in Japan and Europe.

Can we turn Belize around? Of course! But it is going to take some different attitudes at the political level and a re- orientation of power politics and policy making. The current system which favors the status quo is not going to do it. It is a follower of events by about 15 years, not an instigator for the future. National government needs to concentrate on INFRA- STRUCTURE and be legislated out of micro-managing local events.

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