Protecting Consumer Rights At Issue.
INTERESTING times are ahead in the telecommunications sector that are reminiscent of the 1998-2000 era when then Communications Minister, Calixte George Sr., and some of his ministerial colleagues in the Windward islands, took on the telecommunications giant, Cable & Wireless and ended its monopoly.
Today the combatants are different and more sophisticated but the battle field is the same. The issues are more diverse but so are the rewards.
In Minister George’s days the telecommunications sector was not as regulated as it is today. Cable & Wireless at the time, was operating via a licence which fortunately was up for renewal in Saint Lucia and in the other Windward Islands.
Led by George, the Windward Islands ministers took the fight to Cable & Wireless. Back then the telecommunications landscape was not as liberal as it is today. There were no WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, IMO, or other over the top providers that Saint Lucians could have used to bypass Cable & Wireless if they wanted to contact someone. There were no Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (ECTEL) and its Council of Ministers.
Today we have all that. There is competition in the telecommunications environment. At the start of this month we had Cable & Wireless operating under the acronym LIME, and we had Digicel and FLOW. This has now been reduced to just Digicel and FLOW.
The merger of FLOW and LIME last week has changed the telecommunications topography once again creating, as a result, the tense situation now being experienced.
The battle lines have been drawn although the ECTEL’s Council of Ministers is saying they are not in a fight with the telecommunications service providers. And just as in the past, the muscles of the governments of the Windward Islands are being flexed close to the expiration periods of the operating licences of the service providers.
“We are not in a fight with LIME, FLOW, Cable & Wireless and Digicel. We need them but they have to operate in a manner that respects the rights of the consumer,” Saint Lucia’s Telecommunications Minister, James Fletcher said at a press conference this week.
So far it is unknown whether the service providers will acquiesce to the demands of the Council of Ministers. What is known however, is that the Ministers are not backing down.
“The governments within the jurisdiction of ECTEL are steadfast in protecting the rights of consumers in our respective jurisdictions,” Fletcher said, adding that they have the resolve and the legislative muscle to ensure that consumers are protected.
Aside for a terse response to ECTEL’s Council of Ministers, the service providers have not made any frontal attacks on the position taken by the countries of Saint Lucia, Grenada, Dominical and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
It was Geraldine Pitt, FLOW Saint Lucia Country Manager who said that FLOW will issue an official response. She did not say when that official response will be made.
What really caused the crossing of swords between the countries and the service providers this time around was the latter’s refusal to sign an agreement with the former after 15 months of negotiations between them leading up to the merger.
The countries are asking the service providers to, among other things, allow consumers to carry over their cellphone numbers to another carrier should they desire to change carriers; provide quality service to consumers, meaning to make drop calls a thing of the past, provide the quality of data promised; open up the telecommunications infrastructure within a reasonable time like 18 months and not over three years as Cable & Wireless said to the Ministers.
The response of the service providers to what the governments consider as reasonable requests pushed ECTEL’s Council of Ministers to circle their wagons and push for legislation that will cause the service providers to accept their demands. They will be using two avenues to do that, namely, an Electronic Communications Bill, which they are pushing in their various parliaments and its accompanying regulations that will ensure the necessary legislative muscle to combat anything the service providers might throw at them; and the operating licences of the service providers that are up for renewal within six to eight months. By including certain clauses or articles in the licences they are certain some of the worrying issues they have would be solved.
“We recognized that our legislation was deficient,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher further said that the 15 months of negotiations have shown that it is better to have legislation in place rather than to depend on the goodwill of the players in this scenario to get things done.
With the legislation, the Ministers said they would be better able to deal with what is currently before them as well as mergers, infrastructure sharing, acquisitions and anti-competitive behaviour.
Of immediate concern to the regulator, which is ECTEL, is the monopoly that exists in subscribed television and fixed line based services today as a result of the merger of LIME and FLOW.
Embert Charles, ECTEL’s Managing Director assured that ECTEL will intervene should there be an unwarranted increase in the price of those services and in the deterioration in the quality of service.