Clash of the Titans

The arrival of DIGICEL in Guyana two years ago after the company had, more or less, swept aside most of the competition in the rest of the Caribbean, heralded the dawn of a brand new era in national telecommunications.

What the Guyana Telephone and Tele-graph Company had done after Atlantic Tele Network (ATN) had signed a deal with the Government of Guyana in 1991 was to modernize and expand a decrepit and woefully inefficient telecommunications sector and to fully introduce the country to the world of cellular technology.

GT&T’s Chief Executive Officer Joe Singh
GT&T’s Chief Executive Officer Joe Singh

GT&T’s Chief Executive Officer Joe Singh never tires of making the point that the advent of GT&T came at a time when its predecessor,  the Guyana Telecommuni-cations Corporation was virtually on its knees. Singh’s insistence that Guyana has much to be grateful to GT&T for, has come in the wake of questions that continue to be raised  about the profits that have derived from its monopoly of the country’s international voice and data traffic and amidst a rising clamour for an end to that monopoly.

DIGICEL’s arrival here had been  heralded by a marketing blitz the likes of which had never before  been seen here.  What it did was to broaden the range of cellular instruments available to a bedazzled Guyanese market as well as to embark on an expansive cellular infrastructure buildout that sent its market share soaring in a relatively short period. What the advent of the Irish-owned company also did was to push GT&T to raise its own marketing ‘game’ beyond what had gone before – simply keeping itself in the public eye.

The advent of DIGICEL was also always likely to ‘stir up’ the question of the GT&T monopoly and, interestingly, it was the Government of Guyana, more specifically President Bharrat Jagdeo, who   took the issue into the public domain. What the President argued was that the fact of the GT&T legitimate monopoly could not be allowed to supercede the desirability for competition in the sector. Both the government and  DIGICEL gained ground in the liberalization debate after GT&T’s woes arising out of the temporary collapse of its critical Americas 11 cable.

A year after the start of the talks on ending the GT&T monopoly, there are clear signs  that the  wait-and-see approach which DIGICEL had adopted at the start of the talks is beginning to change. It is, the company has made clear, a matter of money. In February,  Gregory Deane, DIGICEL’s first Guyanese-born Chief Executive Officer conceded in an interview that DIGICEL had set its own time frame of  December last year for the end of the monopoly talks. When that did not happen the company went on record as saying that while it was pleased with its performance last year, its earnings could have been far better but for the fact that it does not have an international license.   At the same time Deane made no secret of his view that as GT&T’s biggest customer as far as the purchase of ‘overseas minutes’ is  concerned, DIGICEL was being dealt with unfairly.  

DIGICEL’s Chief Executive Officer Gregory Deane
DIGICEL’s Chief Executive Officer Gregory Deane

When DIGICEL announced that it was  scaling down its participation in the 2009 Mashramani celebrations, that too was interpreted in some quarters as an indication of its uneasiness over the protracted nature of the liberalization talks though Deane was quick to go on record as saying that the company’s failure to participate in this year’s Mash celebrations in its customary “big way” had nothing to do with money and everything to do with its inability to put its show together in good time. 

Outside of the liberalization talks the two telephone service providers have been at odds over other issues including what DIGICEL says has been a  protracted and needless delay on the part of GT&T in moving to implement an SMS connection  between cellular service users.  GT&T meanwhile, has had its own fair share of grouses not least of which is what its CEO thinks is the exercise of “bias” on the part of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) in refereeing differences between the two companies in relation to the permissability of their advertising. In a recent interview Singh querried what he said was DIGICEL’s refusal to adhere to a PUC directive to ‘pull’ its popular free after three ad on the grounds that what it offered customers was in breach of the ‘floor’ of the rates scale set by the PUC. Interestingly, while PUC Chairman Justice Prem Persaud declined to commernt on the issue Deane did not deny that DIGICEL  had been directed to ‘pull’ the ad. Incidents like this, Singh says, are responsible for the prevailing view within GT&T that the PUC is biased. 

Despite GT&T’s fretfulness over the alleged biases of the PUC, Deane insists that it is DIGICEL that continues to be hard done by as long as the monopoly talks drag on. He says that while DIGICEL receives discounts on overseas traffic to some destinations, GT&T mostly uses its monopoly on international traffic to marginalize its competitor in what is by gar the most lucrative area of earnings in the international telecommunications industry.

It is Deane says, “a clash of cultures,” a confrontation between a traditional monopoly that takes its own time to get things done and an aggressive competitor that wants everything done now. For his part Singh maintains that it is the GT&T ‘ship’ that has steered the course and brought the country’s telecommunications sector into the 21st century.

Both  the competition and the rhetoric are  likely to heat up further once liberalization becomes a reality though when that will be is a clear concern for a desperately impatient DIGICEL.

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