Back to the days of monopolies
There is a very important piece of legislation that is expected to receive its second and third reading in the next sitting of Parliament. The name of that bit of legislation is “Telecommunications Bill 2016” and it is described as “AN ACT to provide a legislative framework for the regulation of the telecommunications sector, to promote the use of a single fixed wired network, to encourage and facilitate competition in the telecommunications sector in Antigua and Barbuda and for incidental and related matters.” (The bold and underlined word “single” is our emphasis.)
Right off the bat, this short description raises alarm bells that should be of concern to everyone in Antigua & Barbuda. How can you “promote the use of a single fixed wired network”, also known as a monopoly, and at the same time “encourage and facilitate competition in the telecommunications sector”. The two statements are at odds with each other and denote some lack of understanding of the global telecommunications sector and our obligations under the World Trade Organization.
In our opinion, there is a lot that needs to be addressed in the current draft of the telecommunications bill, but we need to start somewhere and this as good a place as any. If it was not obvious from the short description attached the bill, the latest draft, which we believe is version 9, has inserted a clause that seems to forever ensure that the Antigua Public Utilities Authority (APUA) is a monopoly in our bit of paradise. In clause 47, entitled “Providing telecommunications service using a fixed wired network”, paragraph (2) states “No operator shall provide a telecommunications service via a fixed wired network unless facilitated through the existing fixed wired network of the Public Utilities Authority.”
That essentially anchors the country’s fixed line telecommunications progress to the developmental pace of APUA. Before we go any further, the question for the Minister of Information, Broadcasting, Telecommunication and Information Technology Melford Nicholas is: why? We ask the question because it is a giant flip-flop from his stance not so long ago. In August (this year), while speaking at a Cabinet briefing, Nicholas said the time has come for APUA to compete with other major telecoms players in the country, when providing high-speed Internet broadband service. In fact, the minister stated, “In discussions with the APUA telecoms management team, the Cabinet has given APUA a challenge, where they’re expected to offer a package of a minimum of 10Mbps [Megabits per second] by the end of October, at a price point of about EC $75 monthly.”
Those comments regarding competition and APUA were consistent to other statements that Minister Nicholas gave to the international press in which he said that the cost of broadband in the country is among the highest in the Caribbean, but with slow speeds, and that is largely to do with the fact that the state telco, APUA, has a monopoly on the fixed line market; which has stymied investment and competition. He concluded, therefore, liberalising the fixed line market is one of the key areas of the reform.
Nicholas told BNamericas, “The investment isn’t there because the regulatory and legislative environment isn’t there to facilitate it.” He added, “At the moment the only company that can operate a fixed line network is state telco APUA. And because of that it stymies competition. So everybody is operating at the speed of a local telco.”
So how did we go backwards from the need to reform to a monopoly? We already know that the “good news” that the minister promised never materialised. October came and passed and APUA undertook no major improvements to the network, neither did they improve the speed and price provided to customers. Then November came and the minister released version 9 of the draft bill and low and behold, a competitive APUA had been replaced with a monopoly APUA. We have essentially taken giant steps back into yesteryear and put not just the development of the telecommunications sector at risk, but the entire economy as well.
Investment in a country relies on a number of key factors. Crucial to any decision is the cost of utilities and telecommunications. In fact, for many companies that are IT based, these are the most important factors. With human resources being our greatest natural resource and intellect being the greatest potential for export, we are risking our future by going back to the age of unnecessary monopolies.
Antigua & Barbuda’s future economic development will be dependent on its ability to bridge the digital divide. We were the first to launch internet services in 1995 with a simple 64 kilo bit/s dial-up connection. Since then we have been surpassed in the region by a wide margin. Today, the typical fixed-line broadband speed to a home in Antigua is 2 Mbps. Meanwhile, in neighbouring islands like Anguilla and St Kitts, they are able to experience broadband speeds of up to 96Mbps. In fact, Montserrat, an island 100 per cent dependent on internet capacity from Antigua, boasts of one operator’s starting package of 10Mbps for EC $99.
For all of those people that are under that misguided impression that we are being unpatriotic and want to sell the family silver to a bunch of foreigners, that is furthest from the truth. We simply believe that this is misguided legislation that attempts to use some type of protectionism to place a significant and unnecessary burden on APUA. With APUA being the only game in town, any provider that uses the service will simply point to APUA for any problems. APUA, and its employees, will be easy scapegoat targets for all fixed-line telecommunication issues. It is hard for us to believe that APUA would really want to be that goat.
We have lots to say on this matter but we are constrained by words. But fear not, this topic is a passion for us and you will be hearing much, much more. Before we go, however, you should consider this: the UN human rights council has declared Broadband Access a human right. So, ask yourself, what about our rights with this over-reaching piece of (proposed) legislation?