Telecommunications are not a luxury in the 21st century reality. Although the Barbados Government is not yet up-to-date, many services needed for overseas governments are now on web-based platforms. Further, as a part of our own economic planning, Barbados touts services as a major plank of its development strategy.
If an economy is going to be service-based, then it means that telephone and Internet services become integral to business facilitation. For all the reasons outlined above, I am baffled as to why the telecommunications sector in Barbados is not better regulated.
The Fair Trading Commission (FTC) was established in 2001 to replace the Public Utilities Board which had regulated utilities on the island from 1955. Part of the reason for the creation of a new entity was to meet progressive international standards and provide the capacity to deal with rapidly changing technology.
Fifteen years on, it seems an appropriate time to evaluate the functioning of the FTC and its capability to meet its current three-pronged mandate of consumer protection, fair competition and utility regulation. The absence or weakness in regulation particularly seems to be affecting customers trying to procure cellular phone, landline and Internet services.
Barbadians were encouraged to adopt a wait-and-see approach when Cable & Wireless, trading as Lime, merged with Flow around the middle of last year. As is customary, Barbadians have been more than gracious and allowed time for the new entity to settle into the market.
At the one year mark, I think some reflection on the benefits or fallouts from the merger can be done from a regulatory viewpoint. Cable & Wireless lost its monopoly position in the telecommunications sector at the beginning of the new century.
Although the FTC’s mandate gives it the power to stop mergers, it chose not to stop the merger between Flow and Lime. Although I do not recall a formal rationale being tabled by the FTC, it is reasonable to conclude that it probably thought that the merger would not create a monopoly position as Digicel remains in the market.
The FTC, however, should now be in a position to tell us, using its three-pronged mandate, whether the merger between Lime and Flow seems to be to the benefit or chagrin of customers. The three-pronged approach is divided into two specific duties of the FTC, which are easily measurable. These are the role of the FTC in monitoring the general conduct of regulated companies and determining principles, rates and standards of service.
Using these duties, has the merger between Flow and Lime resulted in better service for Lime customers? Or poorer service for Flow customers? Have traditional bugbears, which have been acknowledged by Lime’s top brass over the years, been addressed? Have customer service and satisfaction been positively affected by the merger? What about the outsourcing of key departments in the company’s functioning, including customer service and IT?
Other pertinent questions are: Are customers satisfied with the current situation? Have the opportunities for information for customers using Flow/Lime been improved as a consequence of the merger? Has a clear policy for dealing with complaints been established for customers of the company? What is the policy on customers being easily able to interface with individuals at a decision-making level? Does the FTC have requirements on this?
Can companies in the telecommunications sector choose to leave customers and trainee employees in an endless maze of backward and forward or does the FTC pay attention to such? Should a telecommunications company have a minimum number of accessible technicians who can facilitate the day to day needs of customers or can all the staff be at customer service level when dealing with technology?
One of the features of the Lime/Flow marriage is that there are now franchise holders for the various outlet stores across the island. Has the regulator examined the breaks in ownership to ensure that the customer is still provided with a seamless overall service? How exactly is the FTC measuring general business conduct to ensure that the Barbadian consumer is being protected? Where does education fit into strengthening the regulatory frame?
The FTC is also tasked with providing education to both customers and regulated companies about various aspects of business. One area which I believe could be further explained to the public, as well as scrutinized for fairness, is the practice of telecoms companies to scrap customer credit after 28 days have elapsed. What is the purpose of this policy? While I understand that each customer who wishes to be facilitated on Flow or Digicel’s network should pay a maintenance fee, certainly this should not equate to losing all of the money topped up. Why does credit no longer run over?
Number portability is still an outstanding issue for Barbadians and its unavailability greatly hinders customer ability to shop between providers for better service. The customer seldom benefits from rebates or compensation for loss of time or service but providers will not think twice to disconnect service. The regulatory weaknesses and limited choices in the sector result in customers being in a virtual hostage situation.
Another major loophole in telecommunications regulation which leaves customers unduly exposed is the dichotomy which still exists between landline regulation and cellular phone regulation. While landline services are regulated by the FTC, cellular phone services are regulated by the Office of Public Counsel.
In the case of the FTC, the investigations take a relatively long time. The Office of Public Counsel seems unclear about its remit with respect to telecommunications and most of the time officers preface action by telling a complainant ‘they will try’. So to whom does one turn to in order to get satisfactory service from mega telecommunications companies?
There certainly is no lack of advertising budget on the part of the two major telecommunications players in Barbados. Does anybody care about ensuring that customers get what is advertised? Who hears the cry of the average frustrated and fed up Barbadian about their telecommunications services? Why is there not a greater regulatory force over entities which just seem to move from year to year violating customer sanity and peace?
Have the customers of Lime/Flow got greater protection and service for the merger? If the answer is no, can the Government regulators be of any assistance? Should Digicel customers just lose credit after 28 days? Simple questions but no one seems to have the answers. As much as we talk and as much as we celebrate 50 years of Independence, we continue to face these problems which are tantamount to a woman dressed in fineries for a wedding with a half-slip that is just showing.
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies.
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