Columns

Don’t allow telecoms firms to drag Ja backwards

Patrick CASSERLY

Wednesday, July 23, 2014    

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RECENTLY our telecoms providers have indicated their intent to block our access to VoIP services, and in so doing undermine the significant advances Jamaica has made in the manner in which we conduct business. Around the world today millions of people are communicating using VoIP services. It is one of the great equalisers, as it affords us the capacity to be freed of the onerous charges associated with the traditional public switched telephone network (PSTN).

Jamaica enjoys at this time the enviable position of being a regional leader in Internet usage rates. This exists despite the fact that we pay multiples of the rates prevailing in other jurisdictions. These usage rates reflect our advances in the application of and value we see in Internet accessibility. Since 2000, when the deregulation of the industry ably championed by Minister Phillip Paulwell occurred, Jamaica has seen significant positive changes in our ability to communicate with each other and the rest of the world. No longer do we have to wait months for access to basic communication; it occurs in a matter of half an hour in a Digicel or LIME store. Through the application of VoIP we have seen the effectives rates for telecom fall precipitously. And as a result we have seen the creation of over 10,000 jobs in the ICT sector. The foundation of all international call centre activity in Jamaica has been and is VoIP. Were we to allow this attempt at restriction to stand, we would be driving a stake into the very heart of digital entrepreneurship and knowledge-based industry in Jamaica. Jamaica's aspirational goals for development only occur when we prove ourselves equal to our competitors. In the sphere of technology, we have proven ourselves such.

The basic premise being presented is that the telecoms providers retain the right to restrict, control, or in any way impede the forms of data that transit their network. Let us be clear: fundamentally this proposal would represent a breach of contract on the part of the telecoms carriers, as net neutrality was a central tenet of their service offering.

We must recognise that VoIP is not a new form of data traffic. It has been extensively used for well over a decade, not only in Jamaica but around the world, and at no point in the contracting phase — that is when they sell this service — did either carrier present a list of data traffic types or uses that were prohibited on their network. The only way that the service providers can execute their stated course of action is if we, and in particular our representative, the Government of Jamaica, accept the change to the terms of contract for the sale of Internet services in Jamaica. Furthermore, the fact that both carriers are seeking to act in concert in restricting VoIP services extends the issue to one of monopoly action and the creation of an impediment to trade. IP Telephony is a basic facet of the modern technological world as is texting, email, and mobile phone devices. We don't want to be the last country lugging around a 20lb VCR while the rest of the world downloads movies on their phones and iPads. That is the closest analogy we can present to what is being proposed

Essentially, the terms of a contract cannot be changed in this wholesale manner because the providers don't like where technology is going. They cannot simply pull up their stumps because technological advances are forcing them towards greater efficiency and competiveness. The fact that they would act in concert on such an apparently innocuous point tells us of the importance of this moment to us. We must call on our leaders both in Government and business to categorically refuse to accept this attempt on the part of the carriers to return us to an uncompetitive and antiquated framework. Acceptance would serve as a guarantee that we are destined to be an also ran in a technology-enabled world. It must be made known without equivocation that the country and its interests will not be compromised at the feet of near-monopolies and their ilk. To compromise on this basic issue opens the door for others to further hamper our path to development.

Were this action aligned with the national interest, then we would expect the Government and business leaders to explain to the nation why it is necessary. However, make no mistake, this action is purely for profit at the unreasonable expense of the already overtaxed and overburdened people of Jamaica. Far too often we Jamaicans are forced to accept diluted and compromised standards of service and quality of goods. At some point, and I believe this is the starting point, we must insist that we receive the value for which we pay. We pay for 4G data service and we are to receive 4G, not 3G. We pay the Telcos to provide us with unfettered Internet access and we expect them to provide same.

Some may provide examples of countries in which these services are blocked, such as Panama in 2002 which was reversed in 2004 and a 12 per cent tax implemented (we already have a special tax); UAE — oil (enough said); Telmex which is undoubtedly one of the strongest Telco incumbents worldwide with over 80 per cent of lines in Mexico (near- monopoly), and a number of other countries that have restricted services for "security reasons". Considering this list, we will return the challenge to them to identify any which should form the basis of the Telco development construct for Jamaica. The answer simply would be none.

Patrick Casserly is the 2003 Jamaica Observer Business Leader awardee and was recently named to the Jamaica Labour Party's Economic Advisory Council.

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