The story I’m about to relay is one I tell often but it’s one which is worth repeating and I crave your indulgence if you have read or heard it before.
In 2000, a fuel shortage in the UK led to the rationing of petrol and diesel at the gas stations in the UK. The only people who were not subject to restrictions were emergency service personnel, e.g. Police, Fire, Emergency Medical Staff and so on. There was also another group, a friend of mine who worked for C&W at the time was able to get as much fuel as he wanted. When asked why he was able to get so much fuel, his answer was simple. “We maintain the communications infrastructure! If you can’t get a dial tone, you can’t call the emergency services!”
What was realised in the UK, was that Telecommunications in a modern society is an essential service and forms the fourth emergency service, as any call could be a life or death matter. Sadly, in much of the Caribbean, our attitude and worse still that of our service providers is somewhat more relaxed.
The outcry over the inability to make calls via WhatsApp however, might be a turning point, or at least I hope so. For the first time, the populous has realised that they are stakeholders and they have something to loose! Now terms like Voice over IP, Net Neutrality and Over The Top services are becoming part of everyday language, as a result of Jadia Jn Pierre-Emmanuel’s militant action against Digicel.
In my humble opinion this has been like watching a slow motion train wreck, this day has been at least 6 years in the making. From an OECS or ECTEL member states perspective this tsunami has been approaching in our rear view mirror while we have been paralysed by a failure to execute. To give some background, the Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (ECTEL) has had the benefit of a number consultancies intended to better enable and equip them to better regulate the sector and be prepared for the ever changing dynamics which technology demands.
It was disappointing to hear the head of ECTEL, state that a service provider, in this case Digicel. told them that they are not blocking VoIP traffic. As the regulator one would expect them to have the tools to verify for themselves rather than taking the word of a service provider. It’s like a bank telling the ECCB that the cheque is in the post!
Back in 2007, ECTEL commissioned a project entitled Extending the Use of Broadband Internet or more succinctly known as the Broadband Project. The project fell under the Telecommunication and ICT Development Project, and issues of content and Quality of Services (QoS) among others were highlighted as key areas to be addressed. The project team recommended key action points to enable the regulator to more effectively address the challenges of regulation. As well as helping service providers to make more efficient and effective use of their networks and personnel. As recently as 2013 another consultancy was conducted to strengthen ECTEL and the National Telecommunications Regulatory Commissions (NTRCs) in each of the member states.
The question is how many of the recommendations from any of the consultancies has been implemented? What resources has been committed to making the necessary changes? Perhaps the more critical question is, who cares? Well, until recently only a committed few techies! But now the WhatsApp debacle has changed that!
To some degree ECTEL does have the added problem of trying to do its job with one or both hands tied behind its back. ECTEL, reports to the Council of Ministers, whose agenda and focus at any given time appears to be somewhat different to that of the regulator. ECTEL and the NTRCs rely on pocket money from the governments to regulate a multi-billion dollar industry. Remember the C&W/FLOW merger is in the Billions of US dollars, but how well is the regulatory machinery financed? Additionally, cast your mind back to the situation in Antigua, where the new administration is seeking to renegotiate contracts signed by the previous administration with LIME and Digicel. That revelation should clearly underscore that even if the Ministers of Telecommunication are reading the same book as ECTEL, much less the same page, then they are reading at different speeds. It should also be crystal clear that if we are to get the services we need, we the customers, are going to have to be more vigilant and engaged in stating our expectations and ensuring they are met.
We can no longer sit back and expect politicians or regulators to do the job. It is my hope that more of us follow Ms. Jn Pierre-Emmanuel’s example. But not only with telecoms matters. Any time a high powered – read highly paid – consultant from colder climes takes up your time with a study mission for an international project, find out what became of the report. Ask for and read the report and then see to it that the recommendations and deliverables are achieved. Because it might just be a life and death issue at some point!
An IT Professional for more than 20 years and an entrepreneur for more than a decade, Russell Williams has extensive experience as an IT Trainer and facilitator and is happy to answer your questions. E-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @RwilliamsKN, G+ google.com/+RussellWilliamsKN