The failure of telecoms reforms

There had been much preparation for these two bills and they had been sent for select committee review for further refinement. Under these circumstances it is quite unusual for the legislative process to be arrested in the manner that it was.

When asked about this, PPP/C MP and the Presidential Advisor on Governance Ms Gail Teixeira said that “at the last moment some significant comments were made” and that the government decided to allow more time for consideration. Her statement was quite remarkable as it suggested that the present government was prepared to surrender oversight of these legislative reforms to a new government, was simply copping out from making tough decisions or there was some other unknown factor. How likely is it that these “significant” comments had never before dawned on the government and the bevy of advisors and specialists it has retained over the years? Since when is this government moved by “significant” comments. As is always the case when there are too many spin masters in the business, the Head of the Presidential Secretariat Dr Luncheon took a different tack. He hinted at the possibility that the reform process risked a legal challenge if it went forward. For a government to be dissuaded from important reforms by the threat of a legal challenge is itself thoroughly unacceptable and unconvincing.

Given the smokescreen that has been laid around this decision, the government has to speak with one voice and great clarity on why it has failed to proceed with these reforms. No matter the explanation, considering that it has been in office for 19 years uninterrupted, the abrupt termination of the reform process with only months to go before the general elections means that the PPP/C government has comprehensively failed to address a pressing item on its legislative agenda stretching right back to 1992. The collapse of the reform process has understandably angered Digicel, the mobile service provider which stood to gain the most through the fructifying of the liberalization.

Considering the state of the telecommunications system that GT&T inherited in 1991 when so few overseas lines worked, landlines were hard to come by and the infrastructure was decrepit, the phone company has done a marvellous job in turning things around. Its parent company has made massive investments here while also reaping big rewards. That however is peripheral to what the executive and the legislative branches were attempting to address.

In 1990 when ATN first set its eyes on the local telecommunications system, the PNC government played with a weak hand and conceded to a deal which in present day circumstances is far from ideal. The deal had also been attended by concerns of impropriety which however dissipated in the peculiar Guyanese phenomenon of managing never to find fire no matter how suffocating the smoke is.

Nevertheless, it was evident to all that having inherited this deal, it would have been foolhardy and reckless for any democratic government to try to unilaterally upturn it. Yet, because of the revolutionary changes in telecommunications and the previously inconceivable applications of the internet, PPP/C government interest began to build towards a negotiated end of the monopoly particularly on the international gateway.

The myriad false starts and broken promises that ensued in the dialogue between government and GT&T/ATN with the Public Utilities Commission on the sidelines are too numerous to mention. The point is, the termination of the reforms on September 22, 2011 had been preceded by at least a decade of serious sizing up and strategizing on both sides. For it to have been derailed by the aforementioned excuses is not plausible at all. It is perhaps now immaterial as this government will not yield to any suasion in maturely addressing what factors came into play and why the public must put up with what can only be described as a glaring anachronism in 2011.  Yet, we still have only one radio station so perhaps in the realm of Georgetown nothing is amiss.

While the negotiations had dragged out interminably without an end in sight there was an expectation that the end of the first 20-year period of the deal would have been an apt juncture to secure an end of the monopoly without having to address the presumed automatic right of renewal of licence for another 20 years. And while it appeared that the legislative process was the means to accomplish this it was inexplicably defenestrated at the last moment.

As the trustee of the interest of the people, the government must be held completely responsible for failing over 19 years to bring an amicable end to the monopoly. Though there are multifarious reasons why the end of the monopoly would improve service to users and lessen costs, the key benefit that consumers would have latched onto right away would have been the opening up of the international gateway to other service providers. Considering the size of the diaspora, the ensuing competition would undoubtedly have yielded real savings to Guyanese. To the ordinary consumer, this is what the government has glaringly failed to achieve after having invested in personnel for this exact purpose, expending huge sums for legal advice and other matters and making failed promises. It will go down as one of President Jagdeo’s signal policy failures and one that he has not yet explained.

It is also incomprehensible that for a country that is trying without much success to attract international investors, build an ICT industry, share laptops to all and sundry and grow the call centre industry that the bedrock of fully liberalized communications remains stultified today and for the immediate future. It runs counter to any sane and sensible liberalizing policy and one in which the private sector is at the centre. Yet, there is hardly a murmur from the supposed captains of industry about this shocking failure. And while it is unable to secure the end of the monopoly the government has rushed headlong with its own fibre optic cable via Brazil, the purposes and wisdom of which have never been clear, instead of leaving this to a liberalized sector.

It will be of some interest to see what the PPP/C’s manifesto or legislative programme for a possible new term in office will say about telecoms reform. In practical terms it may mean nothing but it shall still be interesting. There is a long history of meandering by the PPP/C on this matter stretching all the way back to Dr Luncheon’s infamous declaration that the deal for GT&T with ATN was ironclad only for that to later be swiftly reversed. But ironclad it has essentially been, surviving for 20 years and proceeding into the new year intact.

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