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The passage of the Telecommunications Bill last week in the National Assembly was greeted with widespread enthusiasm. Many can recall the days when the Guyana Telephone & Telegraph Company Ltd. (GT&T) ruled the roost and what it felt like not having a choice, having to put up with whatever service the company provided, having applications for landline forever waiting to be approved, expensive data and internet plans, telephones not working and not having access at all. It was not only frustrating, but consumers felt they were at the whim of the company and longed for competition.
When Digicel entered the market in 2006 it was greeted with positive expectations. The company not only breathed competition with the services it provided but forced GT&T re-evaluate its services to remain relevant. The two services now had to vy for the same market share and it was a breath of fresh air to see that finally the customer was treated with respect, complaints timely attended and being enticed with incentives. It put service back into the telecommunications sector and forced the companies to reckon with consumer power.
The credit for this long haul to finally extricate Guyana from the monopoly control of the GT&T is that of former Minister of Telecommunications Cathy Hughes of the A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) Coalition Government. While it was the then People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Government in 2011 that started the process of liberalisation, former Minister Hughes’ should be commended for her determination to professionally dissolve GT&T’s contract before expiration.
It has become a rarity in our society to find interest in doing things in a professional manner, even when in disagreement or seeking to go separate ways. The quiet dignity within which the final heavy lifting was done that allowed the present PPP/C government to bring the Bill to the National Assembly, which was approved by both sides, deserves praise. It shows too the politicians can find common ground, and this must become the norm not an anomaly.
Liberalisation is here, but the excitement must be tempered with recognition that this does not mean exploitation of the consumer is a thing of the past, services will necessarily be better and rouges will not operate behind the scene to create a new form of monopolisation. The so-called free market is not free of the stated hazards. Consequently, liberalisation, which means loosening up the service, should not be without regulation to ensure quality service delivery.
There is a need for a strong Public Utilities Commission with enforcement power, equally as a pricing policy by the new Telecommunications Agency, which replaces the National Frequency Management Unit (NFMU), that would ensure fair acquisition by various groups in society. There is also a need for a strong consumer advocacy group to ensure protection of the customer. It becomes the role of a vigilant society to ensure these. Consumers have to be watchful in the new dispensation the situation does not become one where services are poor and prohibitive even though at face value, they may appear segmented.
While the plus side of liberalisation allows for creation and expansion of business opportunities, the sharing of information and knowledge, it nonetheless requires watchful eyes, even more so now, to ensure the consumer, who the service is created for, is not exploited.