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Competition: the best form of regulation

Dickson Igwe. Photo: VINO/File
By Dickson Igwe

The regulatory mechanism is controlled by the wealthy and powerful. This is the tiny number of people at the pinnacle of the Virgin Islands social and economic pyramid. They own and manage the telecoms businesses. They also possess enormous political clout. These people profess to be business minded: in reality they are weary of real competition. Competition will eat into their bottom line.

Consequently, the clear and present duty of any regulator is to act boldly. Assertive and intrusive regulation will spell creating a telecoms environment of aggressively competing businesses. Not the quasi competition that presently exists. Competition alone will fix this problem.

Regulation must ensure the establishment of viable competitors that bring real benefit to Joe and Jane Consumer, and their bottom line. Competition will mean offering real choices and multiple options. Any other regulatory activity is a simple tinkering around the edges of the main issue.

But establishing true competition in the telecoms industry will require aggressive political action. There are signs that change is in the air.

Now an online story of July 30, 2014 described how the British Virgin Islands’ Telecom’s Regulator stated that, despite SLOW INTERNET ACCESS, DROPPED CALLS, and OTHER ISSUES, the BVI was competitive when it came to technology advancement. OK. This was a clear OXYMORON. For this Old Boy Journalist, it was simply another statement of hyperbole.

The Honorable Minister in charge of telecommunications put it much better the day after, on another telecoms story of July 31, 2014. He stated that, ‘’ consumers are not happy with the services presently offered.’’

The minister further stated that there was a fourth possible provider, ‘’BVI Cable TV.’’ This was the hint that options to bring change are on the front burner. That was the eye opener. The Big Shot has read the political tea leaves accurately.

Bringing competition to Telecoms Main Street will greatly improve customer choice, customer service, and internet and cellular prices. Any politician worth his salt will understand that this will be very popular with the voter. All voters use telecoms services, from the teenager, to the elderly citizen.

In any event, all the back and forth was an example of how the people of the British Virgin Islands must expect second, even third best, when it comes to customer service in certain industries. It would have been a good thing had the Regulator given the longsuffering public a HEAD’S UP on how his powerful office intended to improve the situation and bring about a better internet and cellular service. That was not on the cards.

The regulator instead, gave a historical narrative on the evolution of the telecom’s industry from the early 1960s. He stated, ‘’ Today we are liberalized- we are competing with the rest of the world.’’ Whether this is so or not is for Joe Public to determine.

This Writer cannot accept the Great Mans assertions. The facts on the ground, coming out of the customer service measure, the only measure that matters in commerce and industry, does not point to Mr. Regulator’s assessments, that all is sunny in telecom’s paradise.

A customer survey conducted on the quality of telecom services in the Virgin Islands could conceivably show over 90% dissatisfied with the quality of service. The poor Virgin Islands customer service experience in telecoms tells another story: a story that describes great frustration and even anger, that Jack and Jenny Customer, continue to be taken for proverbial Asses, after 50 years of telecom history.

What this Observer concluded from the Regulator’s statement was this: competition, between equally capable telecom competitors, is the only option for the longsuffering Virgin Islands consumer. The only reason there are cheaper cell phone calls today is because of competition: not regulation. Effective competition is the only way the very poor customer service dragon that rules the Virgin Islands telecoms industry will be slain.

The Virgin Islands customer remains locked in a proverbial cell called LIMITED OPTIONS. This is due to the limited choices on offer in the telecoms industry. This limited choice and lack of any good options from telecoms vendors is not by chance.

The inability to move away from a poor internet service, to one that gives value for money, is deliberate. It is part of the rendition to a system that locks Joe Consumer into a semi monopoly. The current telecoms dynamic locks Joe Customer into a straightjacket. This is a situation where the customer is held hostage. He or she is caught between a rock and a hard place. There are no good choices. Meanwhile, TOM FATCAT accesses the cream at the top of the telecoms pile.

It is a system that has been created by a subset of the social and economic establishment to ensure profits find specific pockets. The customer does not factor into the equation. The customer is considered a simple statistic: a victim so to speak. The customer is the faceless man and woman on the street to be RIPPED OFF.

The customer is deceived into thinking he or she is getting a good deal by a posse of Mickey Mouse sales and marketing men, with cheap gimmicks, and cash offers: renditions to CONEY ISLAND, with win a smart phone kiosks.

This is basically a bribe to keep the customer quiet, while these companies continue to UNDER INVEST in human resources, and acquiring the required telecoms infrastructure to bring about an effective service. Exceptionally capable managers and workers, and great technology alone, will bring the Virgin Islands telecom industry into the 21st Century.

The country cannot afford to be caught with its pants down in this critical industry. This is a century in which digital technology and scientific innovation will rule society. In the Virgin Islands, the telecoms businesses sit at the top of the technology pyramid. Telecom is a matter of life and death for a services oriented economy.

So the question is asked: does the present Virgin Islands governing class possess the will to introduce real competition into the industry? Will the ruling political establishment correct the problem? The answer has to be no. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas.

To fix the telecoms mess will mean the establishment of a third, maybe even fourth business, with teeth. This will be a new beast possessing an infrastructure that can compare or even better the telecoms infrastructure of the largest telecoms business in the country. It will take bold political action to bring this about.

Someone suggested to this Old Boy Columnist a TAKEOVER or MERGER. This would involve the country’s main cable television company. This is a business that possesses a robust cable network procured over many years. The company could merge with one of the smaller telecoms operators. The two businesses joined together, where the TV business possesses the infrastructure of a credible cable architecture, while the telecom business adds the telecoms knowhow, and international networking capability.

That synthesis could create a powerful new business to the benefit of the man on the street: in other words REAL COMPETITION. It would bring about new synergies to the telecoms marketplace. It could enhance a relatively poor cellular service, offer a new landline service with the requisite telephonic devices in homes, and exponentially improve a slow and expensive internet.

But will this be allowed to happen? It would clearly increase competition in the telecoms sector by creating a powerful new telecoms beast to fight the other telecoms predator, and to the benefit of the customer.

The proceeding article will assess that option.

To be continued

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