Tue | Nov 24, 2020

Stephen Price | Telecoms industry – Key to Ja’s recovery and growth

Published:Tuesday | October 27, 2020 | 12:14 AM
Stephen Price
Stephen Price
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FLOW has been a steadfast partner in Jamaica’s development for over 150 years. Beginning with the installation of the subsea cable near Holland Bay connecting Jamaica to Europe, which allowed Cable & Wireless to provide international telecommunications services, our commitment to supporting the progress of the people and economy of Jamaica is stronger now more than ever.

As we power industries in various sectors, while providing communications and entertainment services, we are mindful of the crucial role we play in realising the digital transformation of our country. The current COVID-19 pandemic presents, perhaps, the most formidable of challenges that we have ever faced together and has accelerated Jamaica’s transition to a digital society.

Jamaica’s diligent recovery is critical for its economic development and growth and for the well-being of its citizens. As we provide the single most expansive technological backbone in the country, we continue to play a pivotal role in helping the country to build back better and stronger. Providers across the world have significantly bolstered their networks to deal with the increased demand, with content providers such as Netflix and YouTube adjusting their video output to further ease the demand on networks. We have responded to the unprecedented and exponential growth in demand for broadband access – especially within the education system, and for the growing number of persons who are now working from home, by increasing our subsea capacity by 20GB, adding 48 new LTE sites and continuing to expand our network.

ACCESS and AFFORDABILITY

There have been many discussions and commentary around access to broadband, as the pandemic has not only brought into sharp focus the digital divide that exists, but further underscored same. As critical service providers, we are mindful of our responsibility, especially during this time. Billions of dollars have been invested across the industry in infrastructure that forms the backbone for broadband capacity and Wi-Fi access.

Local industry players have expanded their networks to further bring access to more Jamaicans. For FLOW’s part, we have significantly ramped up our network expansion programme. In fact, to put this in context, our fixed network currently passes approximately 600,000 households across the country – which means that they have access to fixed voice, Internet and, in most instances, cable TV services. We have also made investments in our mobile network that deliver LTE broadband speeds to hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans at the most competitive rates in the country (95 per cent population coverage).

However, in many cases, the issue is not so much about the availability of and/or access to broadband but rather, the affordability of it. Compared to other English-speaking Caribbean countries, Jamaica’s gross national income (GNI) is low. For example, Jamaica’s GNI is US$ 5,220 compared to Barbados’ US$15, 172; TCI, US$21,337; and Trinidad, US$15,760. One consequence of this is that even though both fixed and mobile broadband prices in Jamaica are among the lowest in the Caribbean (due to competition and a weak dollar), these prices still represent a high percentage of its GNI as compared to other Caribbean countries, namely, 5.6 per cent for mobile and 6.4 per cent for fixed.

We must, as a nation, address the challenge of unaffordability for citizens, given our poverty levels. There is a role for the Government, the private sector, the Universal Service Fund, the Spectrum Management Authority, the licensed service providers, the Consumer Affairs Commission, the Broadcasting Commission and the Office of Utilities Regulation. All must be aligned and agree on a policy mix that will ensure access and greater affordability.

THREATS TO SERVICE STABILITY

The long-standing issue of theft and vandalism that has plagued our industry continues unabated even as we grapple with the pandemic. With thousands of residential and business customers impacted, communities unable to access critical and emergency services, millions in lost revenue – theft and vandalism of telecommunications infrastructure has significantly impacted network improvement and expansion plans across the industry as funding is redirected to restoration efforts.

As recently as Thursday, FLOW’s fixed voice, broadband and cable TV services were disrupted in roughly five St Catherine communities as over 750 metres of distribution and feeder cables were stolen. This is the second such incident in three weeks and brings the total number of incidents for 2020 close to 200, with restoration costs exceeding $140,000,000.

We have had many discussions across the relevant ministries over the years – Science, Energy and Technology, National Security, as well as Justice – with regard to updating the legislation to better reflect the consequences of the crimes. There have been assurances that this will be progressed soon, and we look forward to that as we work together to build a connected Jamaica.

LONG OVERDUE INDUSTRY LEGISLATIVE CHANGES

Key elements of the ICT (Information and Communications Technology) legal and regulatory framework have served us well over the years. However, given the exponential growth of the industry, there is an urgent need for a revision of policies to keep pace with the convergence of services and markets which are being driven by new and rapidly changing technologies. We have, through the years, supported the call to update the Telecommunications Act, the Broadcasting and Re-diffusion Act, the Television Sound and Broadcasting Regulations, among others. Now is the time to meaningfully progress and complete this agenda with all key stakeholders at the table.

The business model(s) of yesterday are fast becoming inadequate to meet the current demands of Jamaicans. We must ensure that we build a sustainable and fair operating environment. This ensures that inefficient and ineffective ICT players are not subsidised, and the Government does not pursue policies that may have the effect of crowding out private investment, which the country truly requires to achieve its growth agenda.

Additionally, FLOW supports digital switchover (DSO); our network and services are already digital. However, as we understand it, the failure to complete the DSO arrangements is delaying the critical progress of the legislative agenda. For this and other important reasons, we need to conclude these discussions.

THE WAY FORWARD

Although the basis for our country’s digital platform/infrastructure is in place, the COVID-19 pandemic demands that Jamaica intensifies its pace to provide the unserved and underserved with broadband that is accessible, affordable and sustainable. This outcome requires an approach that is transparent, collaborative and viable. Public-private partnerships (PPP) are a key vehicle to secure funding to serve many rural areas where fibre connectivity is a realistic goal. We cannot afford needless missteps, narrow self-interests or policies that will deter private investment. Any lack of trust between the public and private sector needs to be addressed and resolved.

Our Government needs our support, and it is our unity of purpose, pragmatism and economic prudence that will guarantee success. We stand ready to better understand the Government’s national broadband plan, including the targets and implementation schedule. This will also allow the stakeholders to share their insights and capabilities. The sooner there is clarity, the sooner the industry will align on collaborative opportunities.

We remain fully committed to playing our role in supporting all the required legislative changes, especially since a fair and transparent legal and regulatory environment is a key requirement for investment in networks and services.

We anticipate a structured, phased approach where we strategically work as a team with the required flexibility and adaptability.

The path before our nation is challenging, but it is not without opportunities and the chance to meaningfully impact many lives. As we have for the past 150 years, we stand ready to continue as Jamaica’s partner on its journey to a better, more enabled society for its citizens.

Stephen Price is the country manager for FLOW and C&W Business Jamaica.