BTL violating consumer privacy
Free up the Internet! That was the message for telecommunications giant, the Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL), at today’s forum on “The Opportunities and Threats of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) in Belize,” held by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) at the Radisson Fort George Hotel in Belize City.
BTL’s recent blocking of VoIP communications—conversing via Internet technology—has angered a large number of local users, who argue that BTL is illegally limiting their use of broadband Internet services, through which they access VoIP services from foreign providers.
BTL sells the service directly to customers, as well as to other smaller providers in Belize. So far we have not heard BTL’s position on the matter, though we have tried to engage them. Like SpeedNet, BTL did not make a presentation at the forum, though the PUC said they invited them.
The PUC has also not presented a position regarding BTL’s blocking of VoIP communications, but its chairman, Dr. Gilbert Canton, has declared that it is legal to use VoIP technology in Belize, just not the way it is being done. The only entities licensed to provide VoIP services in Belize, said Canton, are BTL and SpeedNet.
Though the major phone companies were absent from the head table this morning, there were four panelists representing a wide cross-section of stakeholders. They were Kevin Harris for the University of Belize; Michael Kong for the Internet Service Providers (ISP’s); Israel “Pie” Marin for the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI); and Niall Gillett, technology consultant and chairman of Burrell Boom Village, representing Belizean citizens.
Gillett pointed to part 2, Section 12 (1) of the Belize Constitution—the country’s supreme law.
That section states: “Except with his own consent, a person shall not be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference, freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference (whether the communication be to the public generally or to any person or class of persons) and freedom from interference with his correspondence.”
Gillett’s opinion is that BTL’s blocking of VoIP communications is a violation of this constitutional right of citizens.
Harris said that not only is BTL’s blocking of VoIP, hampering learning via Internet, it is also hampering the country’s overall economic growth. He said that VoIP is a necessary tool for e-learning and online education. Because of the nature of VoIP, it enables users to take advantage of voice, data and video technology, while affording them cheaper rates and more effective communications, he added.
Harris said that the countries that have blocked VoIP include North Korea, China, some monarchies and dictatorships in the Middle East, and Belize. The United States, along with most countries in Central America, the Caribbean and Europe, allow VoIP communications.
He recommended that all VoIP blocks be removed “immediately,” to encourage e-learning and long distance education.
Harris noted that blocking VoIP requires that BTL monitors a customer’s use of the Internet, and, in his opinion, this violates consumer privacy.
Internet Service Providers should not be concerned with consumers’ use of their purchased bandwidth, he asserted.
Marin, who presented the perspectives of BCCI members gathered via questionnaires e-mailed to them, said that banning VoIP won’t cause it to go away. Members are concerned that BTL’s blocking of VoIP is not allowing fair competition and it also limits the ability of businesses to grow and to compete in international markets, he further stated.
Marin encouraged the PUC to allow regulated services.
Dr. Colin Young of Galen University said that consumers choose based on price and quality, and hence the demand for VoIP.
PUC consultant, Dr. Wim van Dijk of Netherlands Telecom Consulting, presented an international perspective. He said that there are basically two approaches that incumbents like BTL tend to employ when VoIP is introduced: (1) hinder its usage and hope that it will go away or (2) get with the times and make changes in their network to accommodate the technology.
However, a number of speakers pointed out that BTL is already making use of VoIP with the 10-10-199 services it offers for discounted international calls. Still, it does not retail VoIP services to Belizeans, as does VONAGE in the United States.
Another PUC consultant, Kevin Arthurs, presented his legal opinion on the issue. Arthurs decidedly told the gathering that the PUC should welcome VoIP—and it appears to be mandated to welcome—the introduction of VoIP in Belize. Among the benefits to Belizeans, he said, are that consumers would have new and innovative services, better prices as well as greater competition in the telecommunications market.
George Hardy, the president and chief executive officer of Las Vegas Hotel and Casino in the Corozal Commercial Free Zone, said that his company pays $1,200 a month for Internet access, even though they have yet to fully use the services, and the provider should not dictate what they do on the Internet.
Even the Government can save with VoIP, said Allan Sharp of the Association of Concerned Belizeans. He said that the Government could substantially cut down on its phone bill by using VoIP to communicate between offices countrywide. VoIP also creates more opportunities for expanding services into rural areas, Sharpe added.
One of the threats he pointed to, however, was the possibility of unscrupulous people setting up in Belize and running phone card scams under fly-by-night operations.
“The biggest threat is only being felt by BTL,” he remarked.
According to Dr. van Dijk, incumbents like BTL stand to lose as much as 20% of their revenues with the introduction of VoIP services.
Still, the overwhelming sentiment was that that is not a problem for consumers. The technology is there and it should be available to those who want to use it, they echoed.
“Regulate, not terminate,” said Michael Kong of the ISP Association. He remarked that the PUC should allow ISP’s to deliver VoIP services to consumers. Give ISP’s the authority to roll out the infrastructure, Kong encouraged, while appealing to the PUC to reach a definite and prompt position on the matter.
As to the issue of tax avoidance, Kong said that a system should be put in place to ensure that the Government of Belize collects tax revenues.
Arturo “Tux” Vasquez, the head of BTL’s corporate and retail sales, who also sits as the president of the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry, attended the forum and sat in the audience.
Vasquez questioned whether the other costs associated with VoIP, such as the cost of power, the computer system, lights and the other things that are used in VoIP communications, are factored into price comparisons with regular phone services. On the issue of tax revenue, Vasquez said that those who use VoIP pay foreign service providers by credit card, and taxes for those services aren’t paid to GOB. Conversely, he said, BTL pays a 19% business tax to the Government of Belize.
In answer to this, Harris pointed to suggestions from various panelists that VoIP should be a service from which Government derives tax revenues.
The forum’s moderator, Danalyn Myvett, PUC’s director of consumer affairs, emphasized repeatedly that there needs to be organized representation for consumers in Belize. She suggested that some of those who participated in the forum should get together and organize such an agency. She also said that while the PUC is mandated to protect consumer rights, it cannot advocate for them. A consumer agency is needed to carry out that role, she asserted.