Belizeans were again shocked, but not surprised, that once again Minister of Public Utilities Ralph Fonseca is involved in another betrayal of Belizeans in favour of the Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL) and its majority owner Michael Ashcroft. Earlier this week, the opposition UDP released a copy of a letter addressed to Ralph Fonseca and the Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) Chairman from Dean C. Boyce for and on behalf of BTL.
The letter refers to Voice Over Internet (“VOIP”) Regulatory Policy and Framework Guidelines that were adopted and published by the PUC on June 13, 2006. Under tremendous public pressure, the PUC had held public consultations to arrive at its guidelines for VOIP and although many felt it stopped short of what they had in mind for effective introduction, regulation (or de-regulation) and operation of VOIP technology in Belize, they were satisfied that the PUC gave conditional go-ahead for the use of the technology.
But according to Boyce’s letter, Belizeans should not expect even the limited use authorized by the PUC in its Guidelines to come to fruition. The letter states that BTL is concerned about the implications of VOIP but that it had received assurances from the Government to the effect that the Guidelines are not enforceable and that the PUC would not seek to implement them. It further stated that BTL would like to get written confirmation on the “assurances” and that it will continue to operate on the basis of the assurances given.
The Prime Minister and the former PUC Chairman, Dr. Gilbert Canton, had also previously assured Belizeans that they would cause the use of VOIP to be authorized in Belize as long as it was being done by local service providers and not a foreign one such as Vonage. They both agreed that VOIP would ultimately lower telephone rates for Belizeans, but that the technology had to be properly managed so as not to cause adverse effects on national telecommunications operations and security.
But apparently, as with everything else, Ralph Fonseca seems to be the ultimate authority in Belize and he has his own plans for BTL and telecommunications. And while there is no “real evidence” that Ralph Fonseca did make such assurances, he had previously enacted Statutory Instruments and made declarations grossly in favour of Michael Ashcroft in his quest to regain control of BTL; the Statutory Instruments and declarations were recently deemed unconstitutional by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and subsequently quashed. Given such a track record, one must place some credence to the claim made by Boyce, an Ashcroft representative on BTL’s Board and Management Team.
Other than Belizean citizens who are longing for cheaper voice telecommunication rates, there are also potential service providers who were shocked to learn of this latest facilitation and betrayal by Ralph Fonseca. A conglomerate of 9 Internet Service Providers (ISP) and Cable Service Providers had formed a company Clear Contact Limited (CCL) to offer VOIP service to Belizeans wishing and able to subscribe. They paid the PUC some $50,000 for a Class License and had entered into negotiations with several carriers to provide the service internationally.
CCL and other customers requesting to purchase bandwidth apparently indicated enough of a demand for the owners of the ARCOS submarine fiber optic cable that provides service to the Caribbean and some Central American locations to make plans to install another landing site for the cable in Belize to accommodate such requests. The current landing site is on BTL’s compound and CCL claims BTL has refused to allow it access to connect to the cable. The new landing site will reportedly require an investment of over $5.0 million. All of this was done based on the PUC Guidelines that Boyce claims the Government has promised not to enforce.
The CCL service would require that customers have internet service from one of the CCL members. CCL does not expect BTL to amicably provide inter-connection and use VOIP boxes with its telephones so the plan was to introduce a parallel service and hope for inter-connection later. CCL also believes that if it were to inter-connect with BTL, the potential savings would not be as attractive as if the service is offered independently. CCL remains convinced that it would be able to offer substantially reduced rates if allowed to proceed with its plans.
Without inter-connection, customers would only be able to communicate with other users of the service or with international telephone users. This would effectively limit the availability of the service and leave most residential premises without such service. It would provide tremendous savings and increased opportunities for many businesses and individuals however, and the spin-off benefits could also extend to non-users of the system.
CCL made its investment and incurred costs based on the guidelines published by the PUC and public assurances given by the PUC and the Prime Minister. Should the Government act as Boyce expects it to, then Belizeans may yet again have to pay the costs of another failed telecommunications venture due to another PUP “mistake”.
The technical, financial and political implications of VOIP are many and are not very obvious. The bottom line is however, that it can be very beneficial in many instances, and the Government’s long-term plan for telecommunications in Belize must seriously consider its widespread use. Belizeans are expected to fight the good fight over VOIP and this technology will no doubt be a mainstay of telecommunications in the future.
In the meantime, this episode is just another in the long line of PUP pampering, cronyism, betrayal, lies and bamboozling of Belizeans. It is high time that the PUP Government resigns and save Belizeans further embarrassment and suffering.