Technology: it's opening up whole new worlds of human enterprise, particularly in the field of telecommunications. But while the science expands exponentially, the legal, political and economic ramifications lag far behind. That's the position in which Belize finds itself as the public discovers the wonders and the phone company experiences the woes … of VOIP.
It was standing room only at the Radisson this morning as Belizeans gathered to participate in the public forum on Voice over the Internet Protocol.
Organized by the Public Utilities Commission under the theme “Opportunities and Threats of VOIP in Belize”, today’s session was designed to exchange expert analysis and public opinion on the hot button issue before making any policy decisions. VOIP technology has come under heavy scrutiny since monopoly internet provider Belize Telecommunications Limited began using specialized software to block low cost digital phone service via sites like Vonage.
First on the agenda were analysts and invited presenters. According to international telecommunications consultant Wim Van Dijk, phone companies want to disconnect VOIP because it cuts into profit margins.
Wim Van Dijk, International Consultant
“Rough estimates, not for Belize, but for incumbents were about twenty percent of the revenues are in danger, not immediately but in time, depends how much development you have.”
Kevin Arthurs, Attorney at Law
“The P.U.C. should welcome and appears to be mandated to welcome introduction of VOIP services in Belize. (Clapping) And why should they not? IP networks have the potentials to enable a wide range of new voice services, some of which will differ significantly from traditional telephone services. Again, voice services are expected to increase competition as they have several compelling advantages.”
Niall Gillett, Citizen’s Perspective
“No one has the right to say how we can or can’t communicate.”
When industry insiders took the podium, it was clear VOIP has more supporters than opposition.
“We like to talk and we like to talk for free. (Laughter) So what’s at stake, is it bandwidth? We know that’s not problem. Is it profits? That’s not our problem, our profits. Is it security or is it our basic freedom to communicate. If any communication service provider can today decide to block a particular feature of the internet, what can they decide to block tomorrow. That’s the way I see it.”
Kevin Harris, University of Belize
“Why in the world would an I.S.P. try to block VOIP? And these are just suggested answers. Maybe the I.S.P. has a strangle hold on the internet service in Belize, maybe they currently use VOIP technology to provision long distance service and inflates it’s cost. (Clapping) And maybe they provide phone services and propose that VOIP will reduce its revenues from phone services. Probably.”
“We recommend that all blocks to IP services such as VOIP be removed immediately.”
Michael Kong , I.S.P. Association
“Our own informal survey indicates that an overwhelming majority of Belizeans want to be able to enjoy the benefits of VOIP. Any attempts to outlaw VOIP or otherwise prevent VOIP use in Belize would be extremely unpopular and would be regarded as a retrogressive step in the entire world community. (Clapping) In conclusion, we recommend regulate, not terminate.”
Gustavo Giron, Belize Chamber of Commerce
“There is also a big concern about the risk of losing business opportunities because there might be a perception of holding back on technology and development for investors or partners or different new ventures analyzing establishing business in Belize.”
Today BTL subscribers didn’t need to computer to voice frustrations.
“My advice to B.T.L. is wake up. You aren’t in the phone business. You are in the communication business. And we better grab this technology. Because if you don’t, you wont’ realize that all those telephone poles, all those wires, are already obsolete.”
“I disagreed with one of the speakers earlier that said it needed to be regulated. I think it should it should be licensed and I don’t think in any free society communication should be taxed or regulated.”
“If the twelve hundred a month for internet access, I don’t think there should be restrictions on it. If you allow business to sell a product, I don’t want someone to rent me a car and tell me I can only put one passenger in.”
“Even with the present lines that B.T.L. claims that they’ve invested so much in and they’ve done a favour to the country and they’re out there with lines to these far villages, these remote villages. Those same lines that only take one community phone, that same line can, if using voice over IP can put in numerous phones, internet and other services can go to those villages, not just one single phone.”
“Madam from the utility commission. I am grateful to the Almighty God for those four letters written over there and I’ll be very angry with you and your organization if you deprive this nation of the opportunity to use a technology that B.T.L. did not create.”
“I would like to ask the P.U.C. not to spend the next week, month or six months determining what you are and are not going to allow. I would ask the P.U.C. and Mr. Canton personally to order B.T.L. forthwith, immediately to stop hindering VOIP service until you decide what to do.”
“I know that there’s many foreigners and others come into our country and set up business at home and do use the VOIP system. Okay, and in that sense for me as a Belizean, and what I see it is a threat to our country because nothing is registered, nothing is reported and money is generated in and out of this country and doesn’t pass through and benefit the rest of the country. So that is a threat as far as I am concerned, economically.”
“It was stated that you cannot have a local number if you use VOIP. This is not true, anyone who wants to learn how to do that can see me at U.B. and I’ll explain to you how you can use both. It won’t cost to do this free, no charge. You also said that you do not pay for VOIP. Excuse me, I think I have to pay for D.S.L. connection every month. I am paying. You talk about charging fees, taxation, excuse me, I have to pay a tax on that connection, so I am paying my taxes.”
B.T.L. and Speednet both refused P.U.C.’s invitation to today’s session and once again, B.T.L. declined our requests for comment following the meeting. But while service providers are staying silent, the P.U.C. was quick to point out that consumers need to sleep with their own eyes.
Danalyn Myvette, Director, Consumer Affairs
“We are not advocates. In the Caribbean region and beyond many regulators or all regulators have to deal with formally organized consumer representation. Belize needs that. We ought to have that. (Clapping) Our mandate is to protect consumers, consumers have its own mandate. And that is to advocate because our protection has to be delivered within the confines of the law and we must balance the interests of all stakeholders.”
Already local experts warn of even more sophisticated technology on the horizon, highlighting the need for proactive laws, policies and consumer groups to try and keep up with the rapidly evolving world of telecommunications.
Although B.T.L. has declined all requests for comment, company officials have informally let it be known that if the public is allowed to use low cost VOIP voice services, the company would be forced to charge higher rates for its local wired phone network and unprofitable rural telephone access.