Mr. Speaker we are living in very remarkable times. These are times that I believe none of us in this place has seen before. The Bahamas is facing some of the most challenging economic times and ordinary Bahamians are depending on us to guide this country through these stormy days. The more difficult things become the stronger we as leaders must become. Now is not the time for leaders to be timid but it is time for action and time for advancement. These are extraordinary times because in the midst of an economic crisis that we have never seen, we are also seeing some of the most positive changes in our country. Great leaders find great opportunity when facing challenging times. Yes times are difficult but the government of the Bahamas has not faltered, it has not waived from its commitment to the Bahamian people.
Not taking anything away from previous governments and leaders and what they have achieved for this country this government has at this time been able to make very positive improvements for this country all while being battered by a worldwide economic hurricane. Whether it be passing legislation such as the Jurys Act, Plea Bargaining Act aimed at improving our judicial system, or amendments to the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act and electronic Monitoring Act aimed at giving stiffer penalties and control for criminals. Whether it is the impressive improvements to social assistance by 12 million or implementing for the first time unemployment Benefit for thousands of Bahamians. Improving and reducing delay in receiving government housing and decreasing the down payment. Whether it be expanding the youth summer program allowing more young people to have summer jobs, or creating the fresh Start Program which has already helped hundreds of young people start their own business. Scholarships have increased and young Bahamians who achieve 5 BGCSE C or above including math and English can attend the COB for free. These are only a few of what has been done in spite of great challenge.
Mr Speaker today we are moving steadily forward with what will in my view be a new communication era in the Bahamas. In FNM’s first administration the chambers of Parliament were open to every household. Cable Bahamas was introduced across the nation and private radio and TV stations were able to operate. It was during this first administration that a pledge was made to Privatize Batelco or BTC. This country has been discussing this for years both governments have done some work on the process but legislation is now being brought to lay the legal framework which will make privatization a reality.
The Prime Minister has indicated that the government is committed to modernizing the Bahamas communication sector and is committed to introducing competition to the Bahamas electronic communications sector through
1. Privatizing the BTC and the early licensing of additional operators in fixed line and mobile phones
2. Liberalizing the provision of cable TV services
3. Permitting unrestricted provision of Broadband services throughout the Bahamas
Firstly, I believe most would agree that the privatizing of BTC is the right decision to make. It will relieve the private sector to run it at a greater cost effectiveness and efficiency. It is also best to allow other operators to create competition. Experts say that the industry functions best when there is competition. Governments across the world have been selling their ownership in these kinds of businesses and results have shown that more competition brings lower prices, increase in products
available, economic boost for the telecommunications sector.
Experts also say that we the consumer can expect from the governments move
1. More services similar to what is provided as routine in the US.
2. More features on our cell phone
3. Cheaper long distance calls
4. Improvement quality service, where there is competition the consumer will no longer tolerate dropped calls busy lines or long waits for repair and installation.
Experts also say that the governments move will benefit the economy by new start-up investments that will no doubt have to lease or construct premises, buy supplies, vehicles, and equipment, and higher employees. There is also one area that is poised to spin off to an industry within itself. The business of advertising has become big business and this will provide for even more opportunity. How many times have we seen the Verizon commercial “Can you here me now”. Companies will require good ads to compete which means they will require good Bahamians who can provide these services.
In addition I am also advised that these reforms of the government will bring clarity and transparency to the market, an independent regulator , avenues to resolve disputes, and will be over better for the Bahamas.
Mr. Speaker there are 3 pieces of legislation
The communications Bill which brings all electronic communications under one system and governed by one independent body. That is radio, TV, Cable ,Land line, phone cell phone and internet. It sets out an electronic Communication Policy, functions and powers of the URCA, licensing of operators, Competition provisions, consumer protection and content regulation
The URCA Bill lays out the new regulator, how it is to be appointed etc.
The Utilities Appeal Tribunal creates in essence a new court to deal with disputes that arise in this area.
Mr. Speaker because there are 3 separate Bills that all make sweeping changes it is not possible to deal with everything in the ½ hour. There are some areas that I would wish though to concentrate on.
The communication Bill promises real consumer protection. The URCA is mandated to protect the Consumer by monitoring and enforcing conditions of the licensed operators. It is envisioned that they will issue regulations on standard of service quality and safety also on how complaints made by consumers should be handled. Mr. Speaker I would encourage this new body to indeed make these regulations and also ad penalties for breach of the regulations. It a very positive step to have a watchdog who should speak up for the consumer and ensure that service is kept at a high standard and it is equally important that complaints are dealt with in the correct manner. The URCA also can protect against what has become a very serious problem in the US , unsolicited communications, usually people asking if you want to switch providers. These can become very annoying and inconvenient. The URCA also will govern disclosing or not disclosing information about the consumer.
Mr Speaker, this is an area that is very important, in that as we advance broadcasting in this country there should be an independent body who we can go to, to regulate the content. The URCA is mandated to develop and issue codes of practice which will bind the providers of audiovisual media services including cable TV.
These may include methods of ensuring that children are protected. DISCUSS
Promoting accuracy and fairness in news and current affairs DISCUSS
Captioning of programs for the hearing impaired DISCUSS
National emergency and disaster conditions.
The URCA will take into account the portrayal in programming of
Use of drugs offensive language.
The 2 remaining Bills are just as important as the Communications Bill and should all be viewed together. The Communications Bill gives great powers and responsibility to the URCA as a regulator of the industry. In addition disputes that arise may extend to major issues in the public interest which may have direct affect on the lives of all Bahamians. It therefore makes the make-up and appointment extremely important. Since they have wide powers who will control or watch the watchdog. The remaining Bills answer these questions.
This regulatory body must be fair, strong, transparent and independent if it is to meet its objectives. The Chairperson and non-executive members are appointed by the Governor General. This in my view is not just a mere political appointment but the GG must take into account ensure that those appointed have appropriate expertise, good standing and reputation. They are appointed for a fixed term and there are limits to the amount of times members may serve. This is designed to ensure no one person becomes to comfortable. There is also a provisions to ensure that persons who serve on the board or are employed by the URCA have not financial interest in any company licensed by the board. This makes sure that no one on the board would have a conflict of interest. It ia also worth mentioning that the regulator also has a duty to consult with interested persons and allow those persons a reasonable opportunity to comment and give consideration to those comments. This is very important as these regulations will may have direct affect on the public and should consult consumers views before they make those rules. Funding is very important in that if it is truly to be independent it should be financially independent. The Bill ensures that the URCA must conduct its affairs by using the revenues they make which should ensure that it is financially independent. They must also produce a report and plan.
Utilities Appeal Tribunal
Mr. The 3rd Bill establishes the Utilities Appeal Tribunal. This in essence is a court which is to be set up to deal with disputes which may arise. Even more importantly the URCA has wide ranging powers and regulates areas which have far reaching effects. They have powers to investigate, adjudicate, search, make orders, and give fines, and the Tribunal is a body which gives persons a place to appeal if they are not satisfied with decisions of the regulator. The Tribunal can hear matters and has the power to revert the matter back to the parties for settlement, overturn, or uphold decisions. It has a president and legal members who are legally trained and appointed by the Governor General but on the advise of the Legal Service Commission. This makes sense in that the court must be independent and if the appointment comes from the Legal Service Commission it will be similar to ordinary courts. The tribunal can make awards for payment of compensation or damages and interest on the awards. There is on aspect which I think is a positive step is the Tribunal can make an Order with respect to costs. This allowing the ordinary persons who wins their case to have their legal fees paid for.
In addition there is another avenue of appeal if persons are dissatisfied with a decision of the Tribunal as an appeal lies with the Court of Appeal. This system therefore ensures that any matters in dispute will have the ability for a full hearing of the matter and full appeal of the matter. It is anticipated that these matters may become complex and quite technical also effecting the entire society and there should be a system to ensure all rights are protected and there are fair hearings ion these matters. Orders of the Tribunal are also enforceable by the Supreme Court giving it all powers of enforcement that the Supreme Court has.