Editorial: The telecommunications elephant

For the umpteenth time, the cracks in our telecommunications environment have surfaced and the administration is attempting to putty them over to make things look like everything is smooth.  The problem is, it is impossible for the government to own the telecommunications division of APUA (Antigua Public Utilities Authority), compete in the market and regulate it as well.  There are natural conflicts of interests and unfair advantages all around.

This is not a for-now thing; it has been going on for a very long time.  Observer knows a thing or two about the topic because we challenged the status quo back in the nineties with Observer Cellular and Paging.  The situation at the time saw Cable and Wireless(C&W) having a monopoly on international calling and mobile phones and APUA monopolising terrestrial (i.e. wireline) services.  Our founders, Samuel “Fergie” Derrick and Winston Derrick, saw an opportunity to have a homegrown wireless telecommunications company and sought a license.  Somehow the stars aligned and the then (and current) minister of public utilities granted them a license to operate.  APUA actually held the monopoly on all telecommunications and thus were the licensing authority.  The ministry of telecommunications only handled the actual frequencies that were utilised. 

Although the license was granted, there were many obstacles.  Observer Cellular, which traded as Airtel Cellular and Paging, had to send and receive all calls via APUA and had to pay them for each minute – both coming and going.  As well, all international calls had to go via Cable and Wireless at full retail rates.  The international behemoth refused to enter into a wholesale carrier arrangement.  The challenges did not stop there.  There were many attempts to frustrate the business before it even started, including a claim by Cable and Wireless that the company’s equipment was emitting “spurious transmissions” when in fact, C&W was camping on Airtel’s frequencies.  And, on the eve of the launch, the

government and APUA claimed that although the company had a licence to operate, it had no frequencies assigned to it.  This is after the sign-off on equipment importation. 

The restrictions were so rigid and in favour of APUA, that when Airtel sought to upgrade their analogue system to digital GSM, the government denied them that request and forced them to use the older and inferior TDMA technology that C&W was planning on deploying.

They claimed that it was to keep the competition on the same footing, but in reality it was to allow APUA to become the first mover on GSM.  At every turn, APUA was given the unfair advantage – from concessions to land access for towers and everything in between.  There was not even an attempt to hide the bias as the government stifled competition and refused regulatory reform in order to protect APUA.

When the United Progressive Party took power, there was big talk about telecommunications reform.

The country was to get a new Telecommunications Bill, an even playing field, and all that good stuff. Sadly, all efforts by the then-Minister of Telecommunications, Edmond Mansoor, were thwarted by the ‘save-APUA’ lobby.  Outside observers were shaking their heads in disbelief that efforts to update a Telecommunications Act from 1951 were being opposed.   Yes, you read that right -1951; over 20 years before the first mobile call and long before anyone even thought of the internet!

Today, the telecommunications shuffle continues.

The cabinet reported last week that it held a discussion on the portability of telephone numbers, but this has been discussed ad nauseam before, and it is coincidental that the topic arises not long after APUA has upgraded its network and is looking to gain a greater share of the market.

Incredibly, the post-cabinet briefing notes state, “The object of the change in the existing six-decade old legislation is to ensure that customers can switch without having to change their telephone numbers.”  We support number portability, but why change a six-decade law that did not even contemplate most of the technology in use today, rather than repeal it entirely and replace it with new legislation that reflects today’s technology and establishes a fair playing field for all.

This delay with the legislation and the piecemeal approach is for one purpose only, the protection of APUA.

Faux patriots and those that know little about the industry will jump to criticise, but they do so based on emotion, misinformation and certainly not the facts.  This entire situation will get even more complicated if the Digicel-APUA partnership materialises.  All this goes to prove that when governments compete against private enterprises without the necessary regulations in place, it creates an unfair marketplace that typically does more harm than good.  Many wrap themselves in the flag to protect APUA, but how many will do the same if the government moved into their industry to compete.  What if there was a government car dealership and it was the only place to get duty-free cars?  What if the government grocery had the cheapest prices because they did not pay for duties, land, electricity, etc.?  Or what if the school meals kitchen opened a stall on every popular food corner?  Few would like or support that. Would they? We think not!

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