RT. HON. HUBERT A. INGRAHAM, M.P.
COMMONWEALTH OF THE BAHAMAS
OPENING CEREMONY OF
CANTO 24TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE & TRADE EXHIBITION
Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen:
It is a pleasure to welcome all of you gathered here for the 24th Annual Conference and Trade Exhibition of the Caribbean Association of National Telecommunication Operators (CANTO). It is my hope that your schedule will permit you some opportunity to enjoy a little of the hospitality and warmth for which we in The Bahamas like to be known.
It is increasingly difficult to speak at communications conferences today because we stand the chance of pronouncing on some system or technology which has been rendered dated, if not obsolete, between the drafting of the remarks and their delivery.
When CANTO was founded 23 years ago as a trade association to serve the needs of telephone operating companies in the Caribbean, our entire region, including Bermuda, had but one area code – 809.
By 1989 we had separate area codes, and analog cellular service was making its early appearance. Some of us thought the service expensive and unattractive since it was only available via inelegant, large and conspicuous instruments.
Back then also, the internet was something that only academics and scientists spoke of, and the developed world dabbled in.
How the times have changed. Today we can only reference the pace of technological innovation exponentially. New models of Blackberries appear it seems before we manage to master the features of the one acquired only months before.
There has been near wholesale shift in the use of fixed line services to mobile service, an explosion in access to basic phone service and some decrease in telecommunications costs.
International mobile roaming and the availability of internet and email on our cellular telephones have become routine. I cannot begin to imagine what wonders will be on display at your trade show.
Technology, and specifically information and communications technology, has changed how we communicate and relate to each other in our private lives, in business and in recreation.
Around the globe, all of our economies depend on information and communications technology whether we are primarily engaged in services — like tourism and financial services — or in primary goods and manufacturing.
The pace of development in information and communications technology, together with geo-political developments, has sped up the globalization of the world economy bringing both new opportunities and intense competitive pressures to countries around the world, including the Caribbean.
These new realities convinced governments of the region that the structure of the telecommunications sector needed to change, especially if we were to continue to grow.
It also brought recognition that the needed changes required significant investment in infrastructure and network technologies to ensure that systems became and remained efficient. And, it brought recognition and acceptance that such levels of investments were increasingly beyond the capacity of governments alone.
Privatization and liberalization of the telecommunications sector followed quickly. Most nations in the region have sold significant stakes in their telecommunications entities, usually to large multi-national telephone operators. Indeed, reports indicate that by 2005 as much as 90% of the telecommunications sector had been liberalized in the wider Caribbean.
We in the Bahamas have lagged in our liberalization efforts. But we propose to remedy that deficiency by privatizing our state-owned Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) in short order. Full liberalization of the Bahamian telecommunications market space is expected to follow.
For us, the goals of privatization and liberalization are those already being achieved elsewhere: expanded consumer options, improved customer services, lower costs, increased employment opportunities and economic growth.
According to a study presented this past February at a UNCTAD/WTO conference, countries with fully liberalized telecoms sectors grow on average up to 1% per annum faster than countries with restrictive telecoms sectors.
Brazil’s liberalization reduced mobile service costs by 20%, increasing the number of cell phone users from 15 million to 66 million in just eight years. And the liberalization of the Jordanian telecoms sector led to a 42% increase in sector employment.
Clearly, the numbers speak for themselves. As old telecoms operators began to compete with new entrants for the customer dollar, the sluggish indifference, typical of underdeveloped domestic marketplaces, gave way to a vastly expanded and accessible range of products and improved services. Almost invariably around our region, the price of these services to the consumer has declined while the quality of service has improved.
Further, the opening of the marketplace has led to an expansion in the number of jobs in the telecommunications sector, and entrepreneurs throughout the Caribbean have been able to earn a comfortable living as retailers, consultants, affiliates and outsourced operators in this dynamic new marketplace.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Certainly, as in all policy matters, we must never allow dogma and ideology to be the parents of delay and indecision.
The World Bank has predicted that our region stands to regress from the social advances of the last three decades if timely decisions are not taken to implement concrete plans to improve productivity and efficiency.
Privatization and liberalization of the telecommunications sector in The Bahamas as in the Caribbean must contribute toward the realization of our national and regional development goals, facilitating sustained economic growth and supporting improved standards of living for our people.
To ensure sustained benefit to the people requires that our communications sectors be properly regulated; not a simple matter. How do we ultimately establish and maintain a regulatory regime that balances the interests of consumers, the current telephone companies and new entrants into the marketplace?
Moreover, how do we deal with the fact that the convergence of technology platforms today make it possible for cable companies to provide telecommunications services and for telephone companies to provide cable television services?
Is it prudent to seek to distinguish these services and to segregate these offerings? And on what basis do we make that determination?
Then there is the reality that communication services have penetrated our jurisdictions without our consent and outside our control. As you are aware, international services such as Vonage and Skype offer long distance telephony using Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) in most, if not all, of our countries. The Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) has responded to external competitive pressures by introducing its own VoIP service to consumers (notwithstanding the fact that the Sector Policy and the formal telecommunications law prohibits the offering or receipt of such services in The Bahamas). Notwithstanding, non-resident VoIP service providers have carved out considerable market share without having set foot on our shores.
For consideration is whether we are wasting time concerning ourselves with regulation, and whether, by passing laws, honoured more by avoidance than by compliance, we are placing our telecommunications service providers and, indeed, the entire business and commercial sector of our economy at a competitive disadvantage.
One thing is certain, as the markets open up to new entrants and as emerging technologies continue to make old rules and comforting nostrums obsolete, the issues are becoming even more complicated and the stakes higher.
There are no simple and straightforward answers to these regulatory issues. Where regulators over-reach, or their regulations are out of step with reality, and where operators are allowed to side-step established protocols, or the established rules simply slow down innovation and add costs with no attendant benefits, the advantages of liberalization can be undermined and even reversed. It is for this reason that an efficient, responsive and cutting-edge regulatory regime is critical.
And so it is important for the leadership and membership of CANTO to bring their collective experience and knowledge and their resources and influence to bear so that the institutional capacity building of national and regional regulators of telecommunications services becomes a priority item on regional agendas.
For example, you might document global and regional sectoral best practices, and recommend for the consideration of policy makers a way forward that will ensure that regional political leaders work together with you, the operators and vendors, to shape progressive and functional regional and national regulatory protocols.
Our collective aim must be to develop a regime that supports the growth and sustainability of a responsive, modernized, competitive and cost-effective telecoms industry. For the CANTO membership this will fuel long term success and profitability while supporting the sustainable economic prospects for the countries of the region.
The second challenge that I wish to address today in respect of communications liberalization is the extent to which the public and private sectors are able to coordinate their strategic agendas to meet the shared goal of expanded connectivity of the citizens of the region.
For The Bahamas, this has special resonance. As a nation of islands spanning some 750 nautical miles, it remains a costly and challenging enterprise to ensure equitable access by citizens in remote areas to even the very basic public services and conveniences that are enjoyed without second thought by residents in the major population centres.
To facilitate the liberalization of their telecommunications sectors, governments are ceding ownership and management control of their telecoms entities.
What this has meant for others, and will mean for The Bahamas, is that governments can no longer readily mandate that investments by these entities be made based simply on their social welfare or national development value. This concern has numbered among those that have tempered the speed with which The Bahamas has moved to privatization and liberalization of our communications.
We can assume that a privatized incumbent, locked in battle with new market entrants, will be persuaded to invest exclusively on a particular project’s potential positive impact on the company’s bottom line.
I was pleased to learn that CANTO has been proactive in addressing this issue through its embrace of the Connect the Caribbean initiative that is spearheaded by the Caribbean Telecoms Union (CTU).
An offshoot of the International Telecoms Union’s Connect the World enterprise, the Connect the Caribbean Initiative calls for a coordination of public and private sector strategies to ensure, firstly, that no citizen of the Caribbean is marginalized in this increasingly competitive global marketplace by lack of access to internet and telephone connectivity; and secondly, that the communications technologies that do exist are exploited fully to bring e-medicine, e-education, e-government and e-commerce to even the most remote and inaccessible places within our region.
My government is committed to ensuring that we use the tools available to us — including these increasingly effective and powerful tools of communication and connectivity – to ensure that all Bahamians have access to the same opportunities and services no matter where they may reside in our country.
I am pleased to learn that, through their embrace of the Connect the Caribbean initiative, the private companies that now largely comprise the CANTO membership appreciate the need to have an enlightened perspective on their long-term interests.
It is crucial for CANTO members to mobilize their considerable financial resources and global reach to support the full connectivity of Caribbean nations. In so doing, they will be making a critical investment in our national and regional infrastructure and, more importantly, in our human capital. In this noble endeavour I assure you of my Government’s continued support.
I believe that the partnership of CANTO members with Caribbean governments can greatly assist in ensuring that the region is able to maintain and improve upon its competitiveness in a global marketplace. This will create expanded local markets and improved standards of living that will, in turn, lay a foundation for the long-term viability of the CANTO membership.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Again, I should like to welcome you to The Bahamas, and I hope that you will have productive deliberations to the benefit of CANTO and our entire region.
It is now my very great pleasure to declare this, the CANTO 24th Annual Conference and Trade Exhibition, open.