Mr. Speaker, as is usual of course for this member, I would like to pay homage to the Kings and Queens of the great constituency of South Beach.
Mr. Speaker, the compendium of Bills introduced by the Right Honourable Prime Minister is in keeping with the legacy of the FNM administrations, such that these Bills we are to debate, serve as a continuation of the earlier efforts of the Free National Movement and the Ingraham administration.
Mr. Speaker, with the ever shrinking Globe and increasing competition, Globalization, technology and consumer demand insist that Governments and industry adapt accordingly. As honourable members would recall, it was the FNM administration that had the foresight to create the enabling environment for liberalization, thereby allowing the refocusing of our Government to embrace the role of Governance versus taking on an unwarranted role of dominance in areas where Government was rapidly losing capacity or relevance.
Notably Mr. Speaker, it was the FNM administration that established the Public Hospitals Authority, the Airport Authority and other entities that allowed the appropriation of resources to focus on specific activities so as to create the fiscal space for the Government to provide infrastructural improvements and target greater, deeper and more meaningful social investments such as the benefits offered to those who had their electricity supply disconnected due to nonpayment or those who became unemployed.
More so, Mr. Speaker, it was the FNM administration that established the precursor regulatory agency to these legislation, the Public Utilities Commission.
Mr. Speaker, the vision by this progressive administration is becoming clearer as we continue to add the critical and defining building blocks upon the earlier foundations built from 1992 to 2002.
Mr. Speaker, earlier actions were measured with soundness, prudence and pragmatism. These are the implements of good governance. Mr. Speaker, I rise this morning with great honour, having been afforded the opportunity to second the motion of the Right Honourable Prime Minister on a matter that gives meaning to the journey pursued in the communications sector. This legislation has brought colour to this body of work.
Mr. Speaker, given the extensive level of consultation and technical input involved in these legislation, it is suffice to convey to this honourable house, with certainty and clear satisfaction that the approach of these legislation imposes industry and sector-wide best practices. They also conform to this administration’s benchmark, and that is, the surety that these approaches are in the best interest of all in Bahamaland, (not some, but all).
Mr. Speaker, promotion and fostering of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) development in the Bahamas is integral to the basis of our economy and the delivery of our services (be it Financial, Tourism or Professional services). Undoubtedly these legislation will contribute to enhancing the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) sector which invariably elevates the country’s level of competitiveness and provides value for money output to our citizens, investors and visitors alike.
Mr. Speaker, I am encouraged by a similar sentiment expressed in a recent article by the Oxford Business Group in their 2009 country profile on The Bahamas. That article quoted Mr. T. Baswell Donaldson, the chairman of the BTC Privatization Committee as follows:
“The ultimate goal is to create an efficient and comprehensive market for Telecoms, where consumers and a progressive Regulatory regime ensure that citizens obtain world class services at the best possible prices.”
Mr. Speaker, in seconding the motion I wish to also offer this House and the Bahamian people some observations in respect of the Bills that lay before us under the portfolio of the Ministry of the Environment.
Mr. Speaker, the Utilities Regulation & Competition Authority Bill, The Utilities Appeal Tribunal Bill, and The Communications Bill reflects the Government’s continued commitment to the sustainable economic and social development of The Bahamas. In order for a nation to develop, it must provide basic infrastructure and utility services to its citizens in an efficient and cost-effective manner.
Unfortunately however, despite high levels of investment funding and other resources, significant weaknesses remain in the organization and delivery of services. These weaknesses, Mr. Speaker, include poor technical performance, prices not reflective of costs, inadequate cash flow, generally poor financial health, and low rates of return on capital deployed. In The Bahamas, these entities are often Government-owned monopolies with minimal regulatory oversight, therefore creating little incentive for efficiency improvements.
Given that the utility sector requires large investments, it is critical for the Government to ensure that these investments are efficiently made and contribute to the economic and social development of the country.
In that regard, Mr. Speaker, it is critical that investments from the Treasury, Government borrowing, and the private sector be more than adequately leveraged. The amount and rate of investment is highly dependent on the political and regulatory risk perceived by the private sector. As you are aware, the stability of the political system in The Bahamas is excellent; therefore attracting investment capital is really dependent upon the regulatory regime including the utilities regulatory environment.
Mr. Speaker, This regulatory regime must have as its focus, a clear and transparent framework; it must control the quality of service as well as the prices to customers, and must protect the consumer’s interests.
More importantly for investment, the Regulator must be autonomous with CLEAR policies and guidelines to govern the execution of regulatory duties, and provide CERTAINTY and CREDIBILITY in the market.
Mr. Speaker, by way of background, in an effort to attract private sector investment, the Government received a grant from the IDB to form the Public Utilities Commission in 1999. This was a precursor to the proposed privatization of the telecommunications sector. Going forward, Mr. Speaker, the bills being introduced today represent an improvement on previous legislation and, while intended to address the communications sector initially, the regulation of the water and Energy sectors must follow. These new bills will give greater strength and powers to the Regulator, introduce provisions for competition, and level the regulatory ‘playing field’ for all operators.
Mr. Speaker, The establishment of the Utilities Regulation & Competition Authority (URCA) will engender a high level of confidence among taxpayers and investors alike, and encourage maximum development of the Utilities Sector. The underlying principles of its operation will be transparency and objectivity, predictability and public involvement. These principles will be reflected not only in sector policy and objectives but developed in operational guidelines for the Utilities Sector.
Mr. Speaker, the Government has so named the Utilities Regulation & Competition Authority, in an effort to emphasize not only its regulatory duties but also its duty of ensuring vibrant competition in the marketplace, which will undoubtedly benefit the end consumers, in terms of best prices and optimum service. This is further highlighted in The Communications Bill, where Part XI – Competition Provisions, addresses anti-competitive practices and abuse of a dominant position.
Mr. Speaker, The UAT – Utilities Appeal Tribunal, will be a critical and independent body, available to hear and make determinations on matters involving complex regulatory, competition and technical issues within the regulated sectors.
As affirmed, the Government’s primary objectives in establishing the Utilities Regulation & Competition Authority (URCA) and Utilities Appeal Tribunal (UAT) are as follows;
(i) to ensure the long-term development and provision of utility services;
(ii) to promote efficiency in the provision of utility services, and;
(iii) To promote national and social objectives and development.
Mr. Speaker, These objectives are clearly supported in Part II of the Communications Bill, where the Electronic Communications Policy objectives are stated. This section highlights the fact that “electronic communications perform an essential role in promoting the economic and social welfare of The Bahamas.”
Mr. Speaker, one of the Policy’s main objectives is to further the interests of consumers by promoting competition. This includes, in particular;
(i) enhancing efficiency and economic productivity;
(ii) promoting investment and innovation;
(iii) encouraging, promoting, and enforcing sustainable competition, and;
(iv) promoting the optimal use of state assets.
Mr. Speaker, The second major objective of the Policy is to further the interests of The Bahamian people by;
(i) promoting affordable access to high quality networks;
(ii) maintaining public safety and security;
(iii) contributing to the protection of personal privacy;
(iv) limiting public nuisance and adverse impact on the environment, and;
(v) promoting a wide range of high quality content service.
Mr. Speaker, The Communications Bill also deals with issues related to universal service obligations, consumer protection, and clearly outlines the duties and powers of the Utilities Regulation & Competition Authority (URCA) in the regulation of the communications sector. In doing so, this Bill provides a preview of the Government’s policy and objectives for all utility sectors. These objectives and regulatory oversight is not limited to only the communications sector, but will include the entire Utilities Sector. The necessary modifications are provided to reflect the special circumstances of the Water and Energy Sectors.
Mr. Speaker, our Utilities Sector has shown signs of complacency and unresponsiveness to market stimuli in an ever-changing global marketplace where the survival of the fittest has dominated global interactions. These sectors have continued as sheltered niches through the comfort of monopolistic lethargy where the forces of change, innovation, efficiency, service quality, customer satisfaction and productivity have been weakened through an absence of accountability, which will be brought to bear by the Utilities Regulation & Competition Authority (URCA).
Mr. Speaker, who pays for these inefficiencies? The Bahamian taxpayers – the general public and the business sector. While we failed to innovate, our global competition has become more nimble and able to adapt.
Mr. Speaker, in a regulated environment, licensed operators must meet minimum operational, technical and service standards as conditioned by the Regulator. Therefore the Utilities Regulation & Competition Authority (URCA) will become the ‘watchdog’ for the consumer, ensuring that the services paid for are delivered in an efficient manner. Additionally, the Utilities Regulation & Competition Authority (URCA) will have the power to impose penalties, rescind licenses, or take whatever action is deemed necessary to support policy objectives and protect the national interest.
Mr. Speaker, this is critical legislation. We have reached a turning-point in our national development and our current global economic challenges demand that we become ‘lean’ and efficient. It also makes urgent the need for private sector investment and/or public private-partnership.
Mr. Speaker, Bahamas Electricity Corporation which was once a financial power-house has major challenges funding its capital requirements today. The Water & Sewerage Corporation is in a desperate situation both financially and operationally. The Government of The Bahamas can not continue to fund these requirements alone, as the impact on the national debt could be catastrophic.
Mr. Speaker, It is, therefore critical that we enable expanded private investment in these sectors, and introduce competition across the Bahamas, where practical and commercially viable.
As we move forward, similar policies and objectives should be reflected in upcoming legislation for the Water and Energy Sectors. Even now with technical assistance from the IDB, the Government will perform a full financial and operational review of BEC, inclusive of its expansion plans and the regulatory framework under which it operates.
Mr. Speaker, These technical co-operations (TCs) have as their objectives, the financial and operational sustainability of BEC, as the present significant market power, and the promotion of sustainable energy in The Bahamas. In addition to promoting energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy, these projects will introduce guidelines for Independent Power Producers – IPPs, and Power Purchase Agreements – PPAs. The regulatory regime required to encourage and govern this private sector participation will also be a part of recommendations emanating from the TCs. As with The Communications Bill, which calls for licensees to monitor key performance indicators or KPIs established by URCA, similar KPIs will be developed for BEC under the TCs. The KPIs will look at technical, financial, economic and organizational indicators and benchmark these against similar utilities and international best practices.
Mr. Speaker, These activities are in line with the Government’s continued development and realization of the National Energy Policy to improve energy security, and minimize dependence on fossil fuels. It also will lay the foundation for regulation of the Energy Sector by The Utilities Regulation & Competition Authority (URCA).
Similarly, with IDB technical assistance, The Government is having a business plan prepared which addresses operational challenges and also looking at the sector regulations by the appropriate body, namely URCA. The introduction of a Regulator should assist the Government in addressing long-standing challenges at WSC such as Non-Revenue Water, minimum service levels, and water quality shortfalls. These too could be a part of KPIs for the Water Sector, in order for the Government and the public to clearly see the performance of these utilities compared to similar utilities and international best practices. Mr. Speaker it will create an environment for expanded private sector participation, efficiency, and accountability in service provision.
And so, Mr. Speaker, within the next year, the Government will seek to set policy and objectives for the energy and water sectors, and produce guidelines for regulating the sectors, affirming its commitment to the efficient use of state assets, consumer protection, the provision of quality service to the public, and ultimately the social and economic development of The Bahamas.
Mr. Speaker, These Bills foreshadow the future for all Utilities. This is only the beginning. So I encourage my colleagues at BEC and WSC to study these documents carefully. The future is here and the future is NOW!
This member on this occasion rises in seconding these bills giving an unprecedented time in the lives of our people in the lives of a communication industry in the Bahamas which needs revitalization and the crafting of innovative and sustainable opportunities for investment and divestment. These Bills, once implemented represents those ideals that will shape the landscape for Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in our country for years to come.
There is an advertisement which touts that “Business moves at the speed of technology.” That being the case, if we here in this honourable house are in the business of providing for our people, then we ought to respond accordingly and bring the necessary technological and communication improvements to our people with haste and keeping with the firm commitment and legacy of deliverance that this administration has become known for and entrusted by this nation to bring forth. Mr. Speaker the honourable member for South Beach seconds the Bills that lay before us. And the honourable member rests.