by Felicity Johnson
Prime Minister Perry Christie gave a keynote address at the 31st Annual Conference and Trade Exhibition of CANTO (Caribbean Organization of National Telecommunications Organization) on July 26 in Miami.
His apparent preoccupation with his record-setting number of addresses to CANTO by "any one prime minister" captured my attention on the question of relevance and gave me even greater cause to consider the appropriateness of the contents of his address.
Perhaps the Bahamas Telecommunications Company's CEO Leon Williams ought to be congratulated for being able to draw the prime minister away from the country at a time when numerous critical issues required the prime minister's urgent attention at home, in order to address a trade exhibition and secure his record. In any event, who was counting? Probably not the otherwise engaged prime ministers of the region.
Perhaps the fact that the Bahamas and BTC in particular have hosted this CANTO event three times in the last 12 years at some expense influenced the frequency with which the prime minister has addressed the group.
Nonetheless, the appropriateness and relevance of the content of the PM's address must be viewed in the context of the Bahamian telecommunications sector of 2015.
CANTO is aligned with the supreme global telecoms entity, the International Telecommunications Union - a 150-year-old organization with a worldwide membership. The ITU sets international standards and policies for all telecoms operators and ensures harmonization of networks so that the world is interconnected.
Over the last 30 years CANTO has evolved with the telecommunications communities in the region as privatization became the best practices model for this sector. Whilst government ministers have their forum at CANTO as a part of the agenda, in keeping with their role as policy makers and facilitators, CANTO has become a private sector organization. Indeed, the chairman of the board of Directors of CANTO, Julian Wilkins, is the vice president of Digicel Group in Trinidad.
Given the very slow pace at which the Bahamas has privatized its incumbent, and the fact that competition in cellular telephony remains non-existent, one wonders what might have gone through the minds of the attendees listening to the Bahamian prime minister's address. What could he have possibly contributed to the dialogue on that all too important topic of competition, with the Bahamas lagging so far behind the rest of the region. And that may explain the impolitic nature of the prime minister's address.
It is bad enough that the government of The Bahamas still owns 49% of the incumbent carrier - a shareholding which is nothing to be proud of in 2015, and which should have been offered to the Bahamian public through an IPO several years ago. In fact, this government shut down the work being done in preparation for an IPO in 2012 when it assumed office.
And for the prime minister to openly brag about successfully negotiating a return of the majority shareholding (note, not the majority ownership which the prime minister conveniently chose to overlook) in BTC, must have caused some to wonder what century Mr Christie was living in. No doubt they thanked their lucky stars that they were not operating in such an archaic sector.
Further, Mr Christie's gratuitous reference to Belize Telemedia, Suriname's Telestar and Dutch UTS as being government-owned, and therefore able to be instructed as to what to do versus privately owned C&W and Digicel, whose Caribbean national employees are apparently unable to make things happen in their country, was an alarming window into the mind of the speaker and his speech writer.
It was also misleading in its implications as to the manner in which modern telecoms sectors are actually set up to work in privatized environments through legislation, sector policies issued by the government, universal service obligations and licence build-out obligations, and regulatory oversight.
It should be noted here that BTC is not the only local telecoms entity which is a member of CANTO. Cable Bahamas is also a member as was IPSI. Yet the prime minister spoke as if the Bahamas had only one member in CANTO - namely BTC. What must Cable Bahamas attendees have thought of the one-sided representation of the Bahamian sector and the biased reporting on BTC's (oops, CEO Leon Williams') accomplishments? Indeed, it would not surprise me to learn that Cable Bahamas had written the prime minister in that regard.
Mr Christie spoke as if BTC was still the only game in town, and invoked the name of BTC's CEO six times in a six-and-a-half-page page address. The harkening back to the good ole days of government ownership and control of BTC was embarrassingly evident. The focus on BTC was unfair to the other entities in the Bahamian sector and demonstrated an alarming degree of favouritism.
The prime minister's address to an international audience ought properly to have focused on improvements in the Bahamian sector rather than listing BTC's achievements and plans "in the past 12 months under the leadership of CEO Leon Williams".
This address will have sent negative signals to potential investors, local and foreign, that there is no level playing field in telecommunications in the Bahamas and that agreements can be unduly pressured into being changed. It will serve as a disincentive to investment, something that is badly needed in the sector to keep it in step with the rest of the world.
Whilst Mr Christie is the first minister with ultimate responsibility for everything, his portfolio actually assigns him as the minister with responsibility for the Utilities, Regulation & Competition Authority (URCA). As such, he cannot, pursuant to the Communications Act, be the same minister with responsibility for the electronic communications sector. The prime minister's guidance on telecommunications then ought properly to come primarily from URCA.
One wonders whether the prime minister noted the irony as he acknowledged the presence of other telecoms ministers from 16 Caribbean nations. Notably missing was a Bahamian minister with a substantive portfolio in telecommunications.
Indeed, Mr Christie's address to CANTO served to underscore the need for a substantive rather than a token minister for telecommunications, who could identify the priority of sector policy objectives in keeping with the government's national plan for development and who could ensure that the government's sector policy goals are being funded and met.
It is this non-existent minister, together with URCA, who should have been advising the prime minister and ensuring that his address was appropriately reflective of the Bahamian sector for an international audience. The putative minister for telecoms should also have ensured that distance is maintained between the prime minister and telecoms operators to avoid the appearance of unequal access and resulting bias.
Mr Christie has been poorly served by his speech writer in this address to CANTO. In addition to the concerns I have discussed here, the obvious lack of understanding and/or the ignoring of the new regulatory framework and how it works to the benefit of the country and consumers is troubling to say the least. But even more egregious is the government's failure to move into the 21st century in the approach to telecommunications, which is most evident in this address.
We now anticipate more relevant, appropriate and balanced addresses on telecommunications going forward. And arguably, spectrum - not broadband - is the new oil.
Felicity L. Johnson is an attorney who was employed at The Bahamas Telecommunications Company from 1998 to 2013 as corporate secretary and ultimately senior vice president-legal, regulatory and carrier services. She has a particular interest in the telecommunications regulatory sector. She was also a lecturer and assistant ahairperson in the Humanities Division of the College of the Bahamas (1978-84) and has written articles on various topics during the course of her career.