Washington — The next time you dial a car rental reservation line, the operator's accent may not be Western but West Indian. A quiet movement is under way to shift quick-response marketing services to Caribbean locations, and it has a broad impact on economies of several countries in the region. It comes as the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) -- the US plan to aid island nations by allowing duty-free entry on most imports -- is having some positive results.
Physical infrastructure is often found lacking in the Caribbean region, but experts say telecommunications allows for ``leapfrogging'' by third-world nations. Site selection for telecommunications often requires no major building programs, just construction of an earth station -- that dishlike structure aimed at a satellite in geosynchronous orbit.
``They can sidestep building major [and] costly metal cables,'' explains Dr. Mohan Munasinghe, an energy specialist and adviser to the President of Sri Lanka. Technological wrinkles such as earth stations and fiber optics, he says, ``will do the job quite effectively and actually put these countries in a very competitive position.''
Dr. Munasinghe, on leave from a top post at the World Bank, coordinates an international effort to promote telecommunications and computers in the rural sector.
Costs associated with telecommunications systems are dropping rapidly. At the same time, Caribbean labor rates are a fraction of those in the United States. Since telemarketing and phone-survey businesses are labor-intensive, the English-speaking Caribbean islands are attracting this industry.
Mark Connell, an analyst with the Free Zone Authority in Washington, D.C., notes that with tens of thousands of people working at toll-free 800 numbers in the US, ``I think these jobs are all candidates to go into the Caribbean.''
Already, the Bahamas and Jamaica are eyed as locations where US and Canadian companies could send tapes and diskettes by airfreight. These are processed in the Caribbean and returned within seven to 10 days.
The Free Zone Authority is promoting a Jamaican ``teleport,'' using a local communications network that would handle voice, text, and data communications by satellite. An earth station would then allow for direct links to the US or elsewhere.
``NCR and IBM are in Jamaica already with their own maintenance centers,'' says FZA director Mark Frazier. ``The tax-exempt zone in Montego Bay is probably an ideal location for many businesses who could tap into the communications network there. Everyone in the zone would have access to instant, reliable telecommunications.''
This zone is at an unlikely spot. Montego Bay is known for its resort ambiance, but not everyone there is on holiday. A stone's throw away from the beaches, job training and other technically oriented drives fostered by the Seaga government are aiding with economic development.
``These workers are really good,'' Mr. Frazier declares. ``Typing skills are impressive, and accuracy is about 99 percent.'' The turnover rate is low when compared with corresponding rates for US workers performing data-entry tasks.
As the world's first telecommunications ``free zone,'' Montego Bay's 57 acres offer special tax treatment and a limited regulatory environment.
If backers succeed in launching a Jamaican teleport next year, WATS lines will follow batch processing and 800-line services. The effects will be felt in many North American industries.
Donald Kennedy, a University of Pennsylvania professor, thinks that while some repair stations and other facilities will always remain in the US, ``remoting work will leave [the US].'' But opponents of the offshore moves ``will have little success in the current environment,'' he says. US telecommunications deregulation and other trends mean that eventually ``several islands will follow Jamaica's path in time, and that does mean an erosion of jobs.''
Many jobs in telecommunications are rapidly losing their complexity, especially with the advent of prepackaged components that require simple insertion or removal. Already ``tele-scabbing'' is used by unions to describe opposition to developments such as teleport.
The possible loss of American jobs troubles some observers, although John Morgan at the Communications Workers of America legislative division feels that ``these services will probably increase jobs. AT&T's revenues will increase, so this helps employees as well as stockholders.''
Funding for these telecommunications ventures in the Caribbean is coming from private sources in both the US and Japan.
Japanese and other East Asian investment in the region is a logical step, since it could offset American protectionist moves by taking advantage of the CBI's provisions.