Concerns about last-minute withdrawal of Guuyana telecom bill

The government is not saying exactly what happened but all everyone by knows is that the highly heralded and long promised bill to open up Guyana’s telecommunications sector to competition and cheaper calling and Internet rates was withdrawn unceremoniously from the order paper on the very last day last week, just minutes before parliament dissolved itself ahead of general elections expected by yearend.

Fuming for the past decade about how many millions US-owned Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company (GT&T) was funneling out the country to the Beverly, Massachusetts headquarters of parent company, Atlantic Tele Network (ATN), the Bharrat Jagdeo administration had vowed to break the utility’s 20-year monopoly on international calls and data transmissions, saying it wanted a normal and level playing field as obtains in other Caribbean trade bloc nations.

But just when, Digicel, GT&T’s Irish-owned, Jamaica-based main competitor was preparing to break champagne bottles and celebrate winning its own international license for calls and data transmissions, parliament dropped the bombshell as government legislators withdrew the bill, alleging last minute developments had stymied efforts to pass the bill.

For Digicel which has invested more than $60M to build out a modern wireless mobile network in the country, including areas near borders with Brazil, Venezuela and Suriname, the development was stunning and management did not hide its open anger at the move by government.

It rushed out a late Thursday night statement quarreling that it was “appalled at yet another aborted attempt at liberalization in Guyana. Government pulled the legislation at the 11th hour. The decision crushes Guyana’s hopes for lower international calling rates within the near future.”

Legislators like National Security Minister Clement Rohee and Presidential Advisor Gail Teixeira said only that last minute contributions from stake holders and other interested parties had forced its hand so nothing will happen until the new parliament meets next year.

Passage would have been easy as opposition legislators continued a boycott of parliament saying they were not in support of government’s decision to bypass the annual recess and to rush through several bills including this one and another dealing with broadcast and freedom of information laws as was the case in recent weeks.

All international calls barring those made through the Internet have to pass through GT&T’s network, carrying up the cost as Digicel has to pay the firm for its service. A break in the monopoly would have seen Digicel getting its own international license.

For its part, GT&T has said that the playing field has already been liberalized and leveled in a practical way as there are dozens of technological routes like Internet calls through Google, Skype and others that have already seriously eroded its revenue base so it was not that upset that the bill was deferred.

GT&T is also gearing up for competition from government itself as it has run a 350-mile cable through the jungle from Brazil to start its own services in direct rivalry to the US owned firm.

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