I insist that the PUC is not doing its job
March 11, 2004
Clearly, I touched a nerve, nay a raw nerve when I made the call to consumers (SN Feb. 29, 2004) to demand of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) a shift from the 'apathetic' approach adopted in the execution of their regulation mandate. This call so piqued the Chairman of the PUC, Mr. Prem Persaud, that he made the cardinal error of losing objectivity by attacking the messenger instead of the message, (SN Mar. 5, 2004) thereby being emotional and acting in a manner unbecoming of a former judge and the public office he currently holds. In his emotional state he significantly misrepresented the position of the Consumer Rights bodies with respect to the PUC Order fixing temporary cellular phone rates for GT&T. This immediate- ly prompted Consumer Advocate, Ms. Eileen Cox A. A., to pen a correction to this newspaper (SN Mar.7, 2004) pointing out the Chairman's erroneous understanding of the grounds upon which Notice of Appeal was filed by the Consumer Rights bodies two years ago.
The erroneous representation of the Consumer Rights bodies' grounds for appeal is in itself troubling coming as it did from none other than the Chairman of the PUC. But even as he accused me of not citing one instance in support of my accusation of PUC apathy, he inadvertently supplied me with one such example.
In his response, the PUC Chairman pointed out that GPL had paid their consumers $60M in November 2003 as part payment on a hefty $1 billion PUC Order but he gave no indication when GPL would make good on the huge balance of $940M owing consumers. In the meantime GPL has been given the leeway to take steps to evade the PUC Order. It seems to me that this is a perfect example of 'apathy' and nothing the PUC Chairman should want to boast about.
Another more serious example of apathy, however, pertains to the PUC's acceptance, through their inaction of GT&T's 'unapproved' provision of services such as Internet access, Broadband service through their Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), the latter being a service that GT&T offers during specified off-peak hours. If this is not apathetic, the alternative is too frightening to contemplate!
Yet another example that certainly qualifies to be described as 'apathetic' is the refusal (or inability) of the PUC to prohibit the cross-subsidization of the competitive cellular phone service for which no monopoly exists, with that of GT&T's monopoly land line revenues. It is clear, indeed pellucid to all who have some knowledge of the role a regulatory institution in a market economy should play in regulating a monopoly, that the PUC should have required a physical separation of GT&T's monopoly service from the following competitive services (Cellular, DSL, Internet, etc). The PUC also should have put in place arrangements to monitor and ensure that cost transfers do not take place.
Had the PUC Chairman respected the quasi-judicial role of the PUC in being the facilitator and an honest broker in balancing the scales between the interest of the utility and the rights of the consumer, he would not have made the improper reference to i-Net Communications Inc. in which my husband is an investor and the CEO. He further compounded the faux pas by erroneously stating that i-Net is a telecommunications company, which the PUC has not gotten around to regulating. Surely the Chairman should know that i-Net Communications Inc. is a Guyanese Company offering competitive computer, broadband and internet services (there are many other companies offering such services in Guyana) and as such does not qualify to be regulated, since in a market economy, only monopolies need to be regulated. Further, is the Chairman unaware of the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) recent ruling in the USA, which determined that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are not telecommunications companies? And if he has failed to properly inform himself about such issues pertinent to his regulatory mandate, what kind of message is he sending the public about the expertise of the PUC?
In referring to i-Net Communications Inc. in these circumstances, the PUC Chairman appears to be sending me a most dangerous signal, one that no regulatory body would dare to send in a democratic environment. It is a message that presents sufficient reasons to give me cause for serious concern about the i-Net investment and the local investment climate generally.
As indicated by the Chairman of the PUC, I spent most of my public life doing voluntary work in the local consumer movement. Fortunately for me, I received training in, and frequent exposure to, the principles and practices of regulatory institutions from countries like Canada, in Latin America, Jamaica and the USA's FCC regulators. Thus, my criticisms should be viewed from a desire to awaken the PUC and to alleviate the injustices being heaped upon the backs of the Guyanese people. I submit that the PUC, as currently constituted, lacks the human, professional and technical resources to adequately fulfil its mandate and should be restructured to democratise the selection process for the appointment of Commis-sioners, widen its skills base to allow for acquiring the wherewithal to establish policies for such routine efficiencies as pole sharing and parity of pole ownership between utilities. It is my hope that the PUC of which Mr. Prem Persaud is primus inter pares, will take these comments and observations as they are intended to be - in the spirit of constructive criticism.
Sheila Holder, MP