Service providers urge GT&T to back off

By William Walker
Stabroek News
February 3, 2000

The Public Utility Commission's (PUC) hearing on the Internet yesterday was a muddle of a future rich with technological possibilities and mudslinging from old warring parties.

The hearing, at the Main Street Plaza Hotel, was convened by the PUC headed by PJ Menon and was to discuss the problems of Internet service providers (ISPs) and other telecom network services in Guyana. Menon conceded that the PUC was not equipped to even understand the dynamics of the technology, but said that it would be setting up a technical unit in this regard.

Menon declared that the future of the young people of Guyana depended on the ability of the country to grasp the opportunities of information technology. He envisaged a future no longer full of persons "backtracking" to America but of young people working at home and earning decent wages.

While he was dreaming a much predicted spat erupted over the Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company Ltd's (GT&T) threatened block of the dialpad website which offers Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) telephone calls over the Internet. One young man said it was a "moral" imperative for the PUC to forbid GT&T from interfering with the Internet. He lashed out, a little too long for some in the audience, at the GT&T clique which had occupied a block of seats at the front of the packed meeting and he took no prisoners in his onslaught; calling cards were "rip offs", overseas charges were heavy duty fines.

More constructively, Michael Abrams of Solutions 2000 called on the PUC to allow ISPs to create their own infrastructure or backbone and to let persons provide bandwidth (access to the web) without fear of legal interference from GT&T. This, he said, should lower the cost of internet service. The company is currently in court with GT&T over this same matter.

Bernard Matthews of Guyana Online read from a GT&T agreement to provide universal connectivity and not to limit the number of lines available. He queried whether the PUC Act of 1999 was constitutional. It is, Menon interjected, adding that it was passed by Parliament. Matthews then queried: "Why regulate the internet? for whom?" He said regulation and control was an old British mentality. "The internet is amorphous. Controlling it is like blowing in the wind! The PUC is not equipped to control the internet because technology is changing so rapidly; legislation would become outdated. It's a free for all."

Gene Evelyn of GT&T was in agreement and he put the blame for the whole VOIP controversy firmly at the PUC's door.

Ronan McDermott systems engineer for Industrial Engineering Ltd raised the point that any regulation of the internet should be in infrastructure and the achievement of universal connectivity. He also drew the PUC's attention to involving the banks in discussions as they are essential to facilitating e-commerce (business over the net).

Meanwhile, the VOIP/dialpad controversy continued with public relations executive Kit Nascimento defending GT&T's position that the use of the computer to make long distance calls was an evasion of paying a phone call and of government revenue. The internet would not even be here today, he said, without GT&T's substantial investment, adding that everything had a cost.

Philip Denmead, chief operations officer of Guyana Power and Light Inc begged to differ. Earlier, he had been forced to defend his company's ability to provide stable power to the ISPs and had said, "It will take some time, we inherited an ancient system... massive investment is needed... [and there is] theft of electricity...."

In his native Ireland the internet is now offered free, he revealed. (It is supported by advertising.) He suggested that phone companies worldwide have been forced to look at alternative sources of revenue as the monopoly on communication crumbles.

Menon expressed the hope that the parties involved would be more cooperative and less contentious given the importance of the issue.

However, perhaps the most notable comment of the afternoon came from one fellow who addressed the microphone to humbly ask if he would ever get a phone, let alone access to the Internet!