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A Brave New World

Once a medium-income country with low internet accessibility, the Dominican Republic is undergoing a digital transformation that will one day make it a textbook example of leapfrogging, a term used when areas of slow technological development adopt high-tech systems without going through the intermediary steps.

Over the last few years, public-private ventures have been installing fiber-optic infrastructure to boost connectivity, bolstering the nation’s growing economy and ICT sector. The initiative is part of the government’s República Digital, or Digital Republic, a plan that will fast-forward the country’s technological development by spurring innovation and providing incentives for 21st century businesses and its booming start-up culture.

As recently as 2017, just half of the Dominican population had regular access to the internet, and smartphone penetration hovered around 25%. Yet, YoY mobile app use has been growing at around 150% since President Danilo Medina’s administration began implementing efforts to modernize the ICT sector. Historically, the Dominican economy has been centered on gold mining and agriculture, two industries that are providing fewer jobs due to recent technological advancements. Reading the signs, the Medina government has aggressively sought to diversify the nation’s exports by encouraging growth in high value-added services, such as software development and data analysis.

Much of the República Digital plan is based on transitioning the nation to Industry 4.0, what is being called the fourth industrial revolution in which information technology that spurred the third revolution becomes interconnected and begins communicating independent of human command—a concept also known as “the Internet of Things.” To achieve such ambitions, state and private enterprises are working to upgrade telecommunications infrastructure with 5G connectivity through a nationwide fiber-optic grid.

The Dominican telecoms regulator, Instituto Dominicano de las Telecomunicaciones (Indotel), is currently laying out the backbone of the USD60-million National Fiber Optic Network by linking major cities such as Santo Domingo, Santiago, and Puerto Plata with funding from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Once complete, Indotel expects internet users to benefit from cheaper and faster broadband services, while also helping the country act as a regional tech hub in the Caribbean thanks to its central location between the US and surrounding island nations.
Such plans are getting a boost from the private sector, including the Brooklyn-born tech and real estate mogul Louis Arriola, who has broken ground on an 80-acre site in Punta Cana for his Pro Capital Film Studios facility. The project will host tech research companies, video game developers, data centers as well as film and television production companies.
Through his development, Arriola is also investing in the 5G fiber cable network with the vision of establishing a “Silicon Valley of the Caribbean” in the Dominican Republic. By creating a space for innovation, entrepreneurship, cyber security, and education, Arriola told Variety he wants “to bring digital literacy to the Dominican Republic where 80% of the schools have no access to the internet.”

Along similar lines, the state’s digital republic plans go beyond infrastructure to prepare future generations for 21st century jobs by developing a technology-based education curriculum. Under the nation’s One Computer initiative, education officials aim to provide every student with laptop access in public schools. The government also plans to build 5,000 free Wi-Fi hotspots in public parks, squares, and hospitals to bolster internet literacy and connectivity. In addition, digital systems are being developed to facilitate transportation payments, medical histories, financial services, and public records.
Such groundwork is being laid to encourage the Dominican Republic’s already vibrant start-up culture. Mobile app developers such as Cuyaya have been grabbing headlines for their home management systems. Much like Nest products in the US, Cuyaya has developed its own home monitoring and thermostat interface, which can be managed from a smart phone regardless of the user’s location.

Another popular Dominican-made app, Ravn, offers users greater privacy options in safe guarding their mobile conversations. The innovative app allows users to hide their encrypted chats and calls, by disguising them inside other applications already installed on their smartphones. Through the República Digital plan, the government hopes to encourage such homegrown innovation by fostering the educational environment and digital infrastructure needed for the nation to become a leader in the Industry 4.0 economy.

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