Berbice Chamber urges govt, GT&T to clear way for more phones

By Daniel DaCosta
Stabroek News
February 11, 2000

President of the Berbice Chamber Mohamed Raffik yesterday called on the government, the phone company and the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to "get their act together" so that more phones and other services could be provided to the region.

"They must know", he said "that collectively they have miserably failed the ordinary man in this country hoping to get a phone by now. After close to ten years we certainly expected and hoped for much more from GT&T." Raffik was at the time speaking at a midmorning meeting between the Berbice Chamber of Commerce and Development Association and senior officials of the Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company Limited (GT&T) at the Chamber's offices in the Church View International hotel in New Amsterdam.

According to Raffik "it is sad and a downright shame that many of our countrymen who can afford a telephone service still cannot access it, much less to enjoy the technological advancement in the telecommunication industry". In the meanwhile, he noted "hopeless businessmen and even private residents out of sheer necessity and frustration have to resort to the exorbitant charges of cell phones." The utility company's team was led by general manager, internal affairs Sonita Jagan and included deputy general manager, public communication Terrence Holder; director of commercial services Pamela Briggs and deputy general manager, operations Gerry DeFreitas.

Responding to Raffik's statements, Holder argued that because of the problems of rates GT&T has been unable to undertake its planned expansion programme. He referred to the terrain of the country with scattered communities and long stretches of desolate areas which create difficulties for the company in expanding its services while noting that "the dilemma facing GT&T is that everyone wants a telephone at the same time." It will be bad for business, he said, to provide an efficient service with the present rates.

Jagan in her response explained that when the telephone company was privatised there were certain assumptions including the assumption that rates would hold for a certain time and that the exchange rate would remain stable. However, devaluation of the dollar affected the company's plans for expansion since its revenues were reduced she argued. This also diminished the company's capacity to import equipment as planned.

According to Jagan "we feel that the public, particularly those who do not have telephones are willing to pay more than the $250 now being paid as residential rates. And if this is allowed we could immediately speed-up our expansion programme."

Referring to the present impasse over rates, the general manager declared that in the present situation "GT&T is trying to sustain itself while consumers are caught in a crossfire. Those who do not have telephones" she said, "will suffer". The company she disclosed was asking for a "reasonable rate" for residences of US$5 or approximately G$1,000. According to Jagan the company has been installing between 5,000-6,000 telephones per year, but finds it uneconomical to install more at the moment.

According to the general manager "we GT&T, the PUC and government have to work out what is best for Guyana" noting that the company's shareholders are not satisfied with the present rate of return of nine per cent. "We need the support of the business community", she told the gathering.

The Chamber, she posited "could assist by ascertaining from people if they are willing to pay more than the present rate of $250. If the answer is yes", she continued "then the Chamber should let the government and the PUC know this and make the necessary representation."

Among the concerns raised by business persons were: the slow processing of applications, the unavailability of the company's service particularly in the rural areas, overcharging on faxes, exorbitant rates for cellular services, huge salaries for top GT&T officials and the poor relations between GT&T and the PUC. According to Jagan, GT&T was exploring the possibility of securing a mediator in meetings between the PUC and the GT&T.

The Chamber's delegation comprised, consultant to the Chamber and vice-chairman of the Private Sector Commission Ramdial Bhookmohan, and junior vice-president Krishndat Persaud. No information was provided on the installation of additional telephone lines in the region. The two sides later met behind closed doors apparently to discuss this issue.