I am pleased to rise in support of “A Bill for an Act to Provide Communication Services”, which when adopted would be known as the Communications Act, 2009.
This landmark legislation contains far-reaching reforms that are important to the further development of the communications sector in The Bahamas, and that will improve the quality of regulatory oversight of the sector. The key principles driving the legislation are:
§ To promote the attractiveness of The Bahamas as a tourist destination and global financial services and international business centre.
§ To encourage investments in the sector and create new opportunities for Bahamian entrepreneurs.
§ To make The Bahamas a more attractive place to invest and reside, by providing high quality communications services.
§ To build credibility in the regulatory framework giving Bahamians and foreign investors in the sector comfort that investment is more secure.
§ To create new job opportunities for Bahamians as the sector expands and new participants enter the market.
I urge Bahamians to become as knowledgeable as possible with the new communications regime. The Government will take the necessary action to ensure that the details of the Bills and the electronic communications sector and regulatory regime are disseminated to the public. This will be through television and radio programmes and on the Parliamentary Channel from persons that are engaged in this process.
The package of Bills included with this Communications Bill prepares The Bahamas for the full liberalisation of the telecommunications sector in The Bahamas, as well as with cable services, radio and television broadcasting, internet and all other electronic communication systems.
The details of the Bill have been outlined by the mover (North Abaco) and seconder (South Beach) as well as by the three ministers who have spoken previously (Sea Breeze, Marathon, and Marco City). The Rt. Hon. Prime Minister gave an overview and South Beach spoke about the relationship with the utility corporations.
Sea Breeze – spoke on convergence, consumer protection and competition.
Marathon – spoke on technical competence and the impact on the economy.
Marco City- spoke on licencing, content regulation, spectrum, and universal service obligations (USO).
This Bill also deals with Broadcasting, and outlines in Part X (Sections 60-64) matters relating to the area of Public Service Broadcasting (PSB). I will therefore use part of the time allotted to me to update Parliament and the Bahamian people on matters in this area, as it relates to the Broadcasting Corporation of the Bahamas (BCB/ZNS).
For more than twenty (20) years, now, discussions have been ongoing about ZNS moving towards PSB. I can attest to this. As far back as 1992 which I was Parliamentary Secretary with responsibility for ZNS, the goal of making the station a PBS was a topical issue. The dialogue and discussion continued over the intervening years. This is the first time, however, that I can say with any confidence that ZNS is now truly on the path towards becoming a PBS.
The Board of Directors at the Broadcasting Corporation of The Bahamas Limited (BCB) have begun to discuss and analyze the strategic issues involved to transition ZNS to a Public Service Broadcaster. Consequently, progress is being made in defining where the BCB wants to go, the values and principles on which the transition and future work of the Corporation will be built, and the strategic planning that would be required to accomplish the transition.
It is important to emphasise here that public service broadcasting seeks to address audiences as citizens, rather than consumers, and to promote educational and cultural enrichment, growth and development. These matters are being taken fully into account as we create the essential environment and public space to move forward with this national initiative.
To be truly effective, public service broadcasting must also accommodate the diverse interest, tastes and concerns of people throughout The Bahamas, and provide a vital space for free expression, editorial independence and open debate. It must inform, educate and entertain in a way that the private sector, left unregulated, would not do.
Importantly, public service broadcasting should place particular emphasis on national identity, national pride and community, and should hold firmly to values and principles that reflect these values and principles, through, in particular:
§ A commitment to national growth and development
§ A commitment to good governance
§ A commitment to managerial, journalistic, and creative freedom
§ A commitment to ethics and integrity
§ A commitment to tolerance and respect for diversity
§ A commitment to political autonomy an editorial independence
§ A commitment to accountability and transparency
§ A commitment to efficiency and effectiveness.
In advancing our public broadcasting initiative, we will be able to draw from the experience of Canada, the United States of America and the United Kingdom. As a matter of course, the target audience of public broadcasting is nationals of the particular country, and issues are discussed, whether national or international, from the perspective of those countries.
People in these countries learn of critical aspects of national life from public broadcasting, including through animated broadcasts accessible by very young children. Programming provides diverse views on the range of political, economic and social issues at the national and international levels. Cultural shows, entertainment, analysis, education and training are all part of public service broadcasting in these countries, as they must be in The Bahamas.
STRATEGY REQUIRED FOR PSB
The Bill puts in place the legislative regulatory framework required to accommodate Public Service Broadcasters. From this perspective, the legislation takes into account that the current structure of ZNS will have to be critically reviewed, to ensure that the transition to public service broadcasting is smooth and effective.
A decision will have to be made in respect of the number of stations that the BCB operates. Currently, the BCB operates a national radio service (ZNS-1) on both the AM Band and the FM Band (where applicable). It will have to determine whether to retain or divest its other two branded stations, Power 104.5FM and Inspiration Station (1240 AM/107.9FM).
Restructuring and reorganization of the BCB will be a major component of the transition to public service broadcasting, and this would, by extension, require a critical review of staffing levels at the Corporation.
As it now stands, ZNS has 253 employees. Eighty (80) of these staff members are in management, and 173 are line staff. Of the total, two hundred and five (205) work in Nassau and forty-eight (48) persons work in Freeport, Grand Bahama.
The upshot of the current staffing tables of 80 managers and 173 line staff at the BCB is that the average ratio of staff to one manager is less than 3:1. In some cases, management staff have no one to manage. This is a situation that developed as a result of promotions over the years, which were intended to give employees improved wages, but which did not take sufficiently into account the job that actually needed to be done.
For example, a cameraman is promoted to the position of Supervisor, or a Reporter to the position of Editor. These officers now no longer go out on assignments. The management pool expands, increasing costs, and the line staff pool contracts, leaving less expertise in the field. No organization can remain financially viable and effective in circumstances such as these. In the case of the BCB, therefore, it may now be time to flatten the organization in terms of its job titles.
The issue of funding from advertisements is another important matter that will have to be considered in the transition. It would not be expected that ZNS as it moves to public service broadcasting, would be soliciting advertisements. Currently, the Government provides an $8 million contribution to ZNS for its operations and $3 million towards its capital improvement programme (digital upgrade). The Bill (section 63) outlines the funding for public service broadcasting and the creation of a fund to accommodate such broadcasters.
ZNS operates in a unionized environment, and obviously we will have to hold discussions with the two (2) unions before we proceed. We would want to ensure that the initiative to make ZNS the principal vehicle for public service broadcasting can be implemented with the full support and cooperation of the Unions and staff of the BCB.
The Member for St Thomas Moore on Monday, 4 May 2009, raised in this House the matter of the ownership of Cable Bahamas as reflected in its shareholders, and cable coverage throughout The Bahamas.
I want to advise this House that the shareholders of Cable Bahamas fall into three (3) broad categories. Government entities own twenty percent (20%) of Cable Bahamas shares. Fifteen percent (15 %) of these shares are now held by the National Insurance Board, and five percent (5%) are held by the Treasurer of The Bahamas. (BEC & Batelco purchased 10% each at the IPO)
Columbus Communications hold 30.2% of Cable Bahamas shares. The remaining 49.8% of the shares are owned by others, including Bahamian families, companies, pension funds, banks and churches.
The Member for St Thomas Moore was also inquired about whether anyone in this House held shares in Cable Bahamas. Let me assure the Member and this House that neither me, nor my wife, nor any of my adult children hold shares in Cable Bahamas.
At the initial private offering in 1995, shares in Cable Bahamas traded at one dollar ($1.00) per share. Today, some fifteen (15) years later, shares of Cable Bahamas are traded at twelve dollars and four cents ($12.04).
Regarding coverage by Cable Bahamas, Article 16 of the Licence Agreement with Cable Bahamas Limited indicates that,
“Cable Bahamas shall carry out construction of its plant so that energized trunk cable will be extended and service offered throughout The Bahamas, inclusive of ninety percent (90%) of the homes by the end of the fourth year of this licence.”
Today, there is ninety-seven percent (97%) cable coverage of the islands of The Bahamas. Outside of the major urban centres of New Providence and Grand Bahamas, there is seventy-six percent (75%) cable coverage.
I want to foreshadow an amendment to the Communications Bill in Schedule 5, which will change Cable Bahamas Limited Universal Service Obligation (USO) from all islands listed to populated areas of our country, as defined in the Bill. For these purposes, populated areas is defined as:
“Groups of permanent inhabited dwellings comprising of ten (10) or more households”
Cable Bahamas exclusive licence expires on 15 October 2009. The renewal of their licence will be negotiated in the context of the new regulatory regime.
Let me make a final, but very important point, particularly in this current financial environment. When the FNM opened up the airways in 1992 to private broadcasting, there were countless new jobs created. I believe that there will be a similar expansion when we fully liberalize the communications sector. I therefore would urge this House to adopt this Communications Bill. Mount Moriah supports the Bill.