The Public Telecommunications Ministry yesterday said that GTT’s complaint against Digicel’s use of a telecoms link to Suriname is a complex matter which has raised the issue of whether the former has sufficient data capacity to meet local needs.
Guyana Telephone and Telegraph’s (GTT’s) complaint against Digicel first came to public notice at a Public Utilities Commission (PUC) hearing last week and the temperature was ratcheted up in a statement on Saturday by GTT accusing its competitor of an “illegal, unlicensed” cross-border link.
Yesterday, in response to the controversy, the Ministry of Public Telecommunications said it has been actively engaging both GTT and Digicel in discussions on GTT’s charge of the unlicensed link “grounded in GTT’s claims to exclusivity over all international transmissions by any means whatsoever”. The Ministry said it was its intention to arrive at a resolution that will be in the best interests of the people of the country.
“This has proven to be a complex matter exacerbated by demands of the market for adequate voice and data services. Among the issues to be considered are whether GTT has sufficient data capacity to meet the needs of the market and the degree of congestion of its network. GTT has been invited to submit relevant information and data to clearly demonstrate that they have the network capacity to ensure that the people (of) Guyana will not be adversely affected by discontinuance of the Digicel link to Suriname”, the statement said.
It said that it wished to emphasise that this does not mean the Government is in any way eager to condone the cross-border link “but in this age of such high dependence on telecommunications and the Internet for the conduct of business, learning and many activities of life, we must be satisfied that there is adequate communications available for the people”.
The ministry added “While the Government is committed to ensuring that applicable licence terms and conditions are honoured, we must similarly ensure that relevant obligations in the licences that provide for adequate service are met, and also that the needs of the people are met. The Ministry is keenly aware that increased investment and greater network capacity is needed to meet the demands of consumers”.
It said that it believes a fully liberalised and competitive telecommunications sector will prevent the resurgence of claims such as these.
Digicel yesterday said that it considers the GTT statements to be another irresponsible attempt to deflect from the material issues that have now been brought to bear upon GTT by the onset of liberalisation here.
“Digicel wishes to state that any question of the illegality of any conduct on the part of Digicel and as to the services that Digicel can properly provide to the public can only be determined upon the judicial construction of the respective licences of both Digicel and GTT and upon consideration of all the relevant facts.
At present there are matters before the court in which the court is called upon to make determinations in relation to the same issues. One such matter is the Constitutional Motion filed by Digicel against GTT in which Digicel challenges the fundamental legality of GTT’s authorisations to operate in Guyana and the extent to which these run counter to the tenets of the Constitution of the Republic of Guyana. It is Digicel’s view that it is only when the court has ruled on these fundamental legal principles can any determination be made in relation to legality”, the company said.
Digicel said that before it entered the market in 2007, GTT was the sole provider of all telecommunications services in Guyana and these were generally out of the reach of Guyanese.
“The prices for services were prohibitive, the quality of services were poor and the access to services in the remote areas of Guyana was only a hope for many Guyanese. Even with the encumbrances encountered, Digicel managed to bring competition, vibrancy and real connectivity to the people of Guyana. At this time, we provide services to persons in many remote areas of Guyana such as Eteringbang, Aishalton and Baramita”, the company said.
It noted that in July 2016, the Government passed the Telecommuni-cations Bill which seeks to fully liberalise telecommunications in Guyana.
“When the Bill is promulgated, all questions as to monopolies will become moot and consumers throughout Guyana can look forward to significantly increased levels of access to electronic communications services. The fact that GTT should wait until this time to distract the Government as it continues to work feverishly towards liberalisation speaks volumes”, Digicel stated.
Digicel said that it stands by the legal positions that it taken thus far in relation to the matters that are before the courts at this time relating to the terms and conditions of the licences of both Digicel and GTT.
GTT on Saturday called on the government to initiate an independent probe of the Digicel link which was bypassing its network.
GTT had previously complained about Digicel facilitating inbound international bypass and the domestic distribution of inbound international calls. At the PUC hearing last Tuesday, GTT CEO Justin Nedd complained that Digicel has been running “an illegal link” that has cost GTT major losses. “Digicel has an illegal link that we have been talking about for several years. When we look at it, we estimate from our revenue US$40 to US$50 million that we have lost because Digicel is running an illegal operation,” he said, while pointing out that they have raised the issue with the previous and present governments but nothing has been done about it.
When asked whether he has proof of his accusations, Nedd explained that he has personally visited Suriname and was told by regulators there that “they are appalled that the link is still working and nothing was being done.”
According to the GTT statement, Digicel told the PUC meeting that its bypass operation was not appropriate for the discussion at hand, while never once denying any aspect of the operation.
“While Digicel acknowledges the bypass activity, the company has never answered questions or provided any specific information – instead, it makes excuses or launches new and unfounded claims that are meant to distract the public and the media,” the GTT argued.
“There is no ambiguity about this bypass activity… which is causing very real and very significant harm to our country. It is essential that both the public and our leaders have the complete details about Digicel’s bypass operations, and that they understand the full consequences of the company’s actions, which are illegal and in direct violation of their licence,” it added.
These consequences, GTT said, relate to the financial loss incurred by government due to both unpaid taxes and spectrum fees.
“It has been estimated that the company should have paid US$30 million or seven billion Guyana dollars to the Guyana treasury over the last five years,” GTT claimed, while adding that “in order to operate the bypass, Digicel must use valuable spectrum – spectrum that, by all appearances, the company has simply taken as its own, without payment.”
The company argues that Guyanese and by extension GTT have a right to know whether this spectrum has been appropriated by Digicel and to have released to the public documents which show whether Digicel has made tax payments on the revenue generated by this activity.
According to GTT, Digicel’s bypass operation has been active for more than five years and over the last two they and others have raised this situation with various governmental agencies.