Bills to free up telecoms sent to select committee

-will end monopoly

The government yesterday sent the two pieces of legislation aimed at liberalizing the country’s telecommunications sector to a special select committee, and pledged that when the bills are passed and implemented, they will lead to GT&T’s monopoly on international calls being immediately broken.

In the absence of the Opposition members who are protesting the extension of the current session of Parliament, Prime Minister Sam Hinds, following the second reading of the bills in the National Assembly, requested that both the Telecommunications Bill 2011 and the Public Utilities Commission (Amendment) bill be sent to a Special Select Committee. Hinds explained that the government has invited the major stakeholders to make submissions on the bills by August 17 after which the bills will return to the House by early September.

“We believe that as both GT&T and Digicel have thrived with an open competitive mobile cellular system all the participants in an open international connectivity system will also be able to thrive,” Hinds said.   GT&T and its supporters, Hinds said, feel that they should not be looking to open the international services from the commencement date.  Hinds, however, opined that the failure to open the international connection was probably one of the bigger constraints on the telecommunications sector and on economic flow and activity.

Sam Hinds

Hinds noted that when the Telecommunications Bill is enforced, for some time there may be two dominant players — GT&T and Digicel—in the provision of basic telecoms services. “But we don’t think that this, in any way, diminishes what we are achieving here in setting up the regime for an open competitive telecoms sector,” Hinds said. “Our aim is to create a regime that would be good for Guyana and Guyanese and also …fair and even-handed in dealing with all the participants in the telecoms sector,” he said.

The bills, Hinds said, had been subject to numerous consultations with the various stakeholders. He said that the government had incorporated, as far possible, the concerns of these parties.

Speaking on the Public Utilities Commission (Amendment) bill, Hinds said this piece of legislation was closely intertwined with the Telecommunications Bill. “These amendments coordinate with the standardization of the terms of licences provided for under the Telecommunications Bill, which will achieve the level playing field that is the hallmark of a competitive telecommunications sector,” Hinds said.  “They also reflect the fact that the Government would no longer be reaching special agreements’ with investors in the telecommunications sector, which is also consistent with an open, competitive, marketplace for tele-communications,” he added.

Government member Anil Nandlall defended the “large repository of power” that the bill placed in the hands of the minister.  He said that in similar pieces of legislation enacted in other territories this “repository of power” is placed either in the hands of an Agency or a minister.

According to the bill, the minister will ultimately “grant or deny applications for, and amend, renew, suspend and terminate, licences, exemptions and frequency authorisations.

The government, he said, chose to place this power in the hands of the minister based on empirical evidence which has suggested that an agency can become very bureaucratic. “The government has chosen efficiency over a top heavy bureaucracy,” Nandlall said.  He said that the bill also requires the minster to consult with various stakeholders when asked to decide on particular matters. He said too that there are sufficient legal mechanisms in place to allow persons to challenge a decision that a minister may make.

Regarding pricing, Nandlall said that pricing will be determined by factors in the market place, but noted that mechanisms have been put in place to deal with exploitation.  He said too that the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) offers a forum for persons who are aggrieved to go and ventilate their grievances.  He said too that the parties can also meet with the PUC to try to settle these maters instead of resorting to the courts.

PPP/C MP Odinga Lumumba sought to dispel suggestions that the bill was “anti-GT&T” or “pro-Digicel” emphasizing that it was a bill aimed at breaking a monopoly.  Lumumba noted that historically monopolistic systems have held back progress all over the world.

Describing the piece of legislation as “a flagship bill”, Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee promised that when implemented jobs will be created.  “This bill, in my view, will create a whole range of job opportunities in this country,” he said, adding that it will see the creation of a new breed of entrepreneurs.

Tracing the evolving telecommunications sector, Rohee said that it is now necessary for the sector to be transformed. In 1990, there were only about 11,000 landlines in the country with this figure growing to 147,000 at present, the minister noted.

PPP/C MP Donald Ramotar said the liberalizing of the sector could lead to “new services” being added to those already in existence and to the entrance of more investors. He said too that the bill provides the opportunity for smaller operators to develop and compete in areas that are currently not serviced.

The Broadcast Bill makes provision for the setting up of a Telecommunications Agen-cy, into which the National Frequency Management Unit will be incorporated. This Agency, according to the proposed bill, is to function under the Minister’s supervision as the technical regulator of the sector and is responsible for regulating  the spectrum and other technical matters and for administering the new universal access/universal services programme. The Agen-cy shall consist of a Director of Telecommunications, who shall also be the Chief Executive Officer; a Deputy Director of Telecommuni-cations, who shall also be the Deputy Chief Executive Officer; and such Heads of Divisions as may be designated by the Minister.

These members, according to the bill, shall be persons appearing to the Minister to be persons of high character and integrity and qualified as having had extensive and relevant training and experience in fields relating to telecommunications law, economics, finance, engineering, or other technical matters or business.  The members shall be fulltime officers and employees of the Agency and shall be appointed by the minister.  The members should not serve for a period exceeding more than three years but are eligible for reappointment by the Minister at the expiry of the term of office.

Under this bill and the consequential amendments to the Public Utilities Commission Act, the PUC will continue to function as the economic regulator of the sector. The Commission will be responsible for ensuring a competitive environment, integrated networks and services, consumer rights, and fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory prices.

Under the bill, GT&T, Digicel, E-Networks Inc, Quark Communications Inc.  and i-Net Communications Inc will be granted individual licences and frequency authorization without any application

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