That GT&T/Cel*Star conflict My column / Adam Harris

Kaieteur News

June 13, 2004

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Just a few weeks ago many people broke out in smiles. They had learnt that they could walk with their cellular phones to any part of the Caribbean and North America and find that they could still use the phones.

This development was in keeping with an agreement entered into between Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company and the Guyana Government. The government had ordered the phone company to complete this programme within two years. As a consequence, GT&T invested some US$10 million and actually got the system to the point of implementation.

When I spoke with some of the people involved in this project, I learnt that negotiations had already been conducted with a number of international carriers and only minor details remained. This roaming feature would have become effective by September.

However, the government decided to halt GT&T’s expansion on the grounds that it must first accommodate Cel*Star, a rival telephone company entering the market. This had to be a strange development. Rarely do governments intervene to such an extent, especially when a dispute exists.

In the United States when Bell Atlantic actually held a virtual monopoly in the telephone system in that country, the federal authorities became involved and ordered that the company dismantle the monopoly. At the time, there were smaller companies in the works.

The monopoly was disbanded. The same thing happened with the computer system. But in Guyana where there is a monopoly because there is simply no other system in place to mount any competition, the move by the government to reduce the widespread coverage of GT&T must cause raised eyebrows.

In the first instance, none of us knows whether the Cel*Star system would work. There has been no testing. It is not that Cel*Star has actually been providing a service and is now being forced out.

And in any case, I am certain that GT&T would prefer to have Cel*Star as the local competitor for many reasons. In the first instance, Cel*Star is not a telephone giant and therefore cannot pump in the kind of cash for expansion purposes. Perhaps if Cable and Wireless or some other company was here then the local telephone company would have cause to worry and to adopt any stalling measures.

I am confused. If a new telephone company is coming into the system, shouldn’t that company install its own communication system? I would expect Cel*Star to have its own switching system and whatever is necessary in place. But here we have a war because the new company wants to use facilities created by the local phone company. And the government is insisting that this should be the case.

This, to me, seems to be a case of someone dictating to a home owner that he should let someone share his accommodation and make money out of sharing that accommodation. I am not sure that when the local telephone company came into being there was a clause that whatever it develops should be shared by any other phone company coming into the system.

When the issue first broke, I made some enquiries and learnt that the people at GT&T wanted to ensure that they were entering into an agreement with the people who had every right to transact such business and to conduct any negotiation. I was aware that there was some court issue over the ownership of the Guyana leg of Cel*Star. I also learnt that that court issue was disposed of in favour of the local branch of Cel*Star. That at least cleared the way for the people managing Cel*Star Guyana to undertake negotiations with GT&T.

But somehow or other I got the impression that there was more to the actions by GT&T. I suspected that there was a problem involving the collection and transfer of funds. For example, if someone used GT&T to access Cel*Star then the latter should pay a fee. I suspected that the details of the payment had not been worked out.

Similarly, if a caller accessed Cel*Star to reach a GT&T subscriber then GT&T should be made to pay.

If this was indeed a problem then for the length of time Cel*Star has been in Guyana surely such petty details could have been negotiated. I therefore switched to the number of dates Cel*Star announced as the start up period. There were numerous postponements to the point where some of us wondered whether Cel*Star would ever get rolling. Surely the government must have taken notice of this.

Meanwhile, I knew that there was a lot of bad blood between the government and GT&T. From the time it came into power, the government began to examine every contract entered into with the previous administration. It never disclosed the findings of a lot of the investigations because they turned out to be above board.

Recently, GT&T blocked a loan to the Guyana Government. In the end that matter was resolved in the courts but the cold hard fact remained, being an American company, it was protected from any moves by the government. That came about because of an edict handed down by the American Government. It had something with Guyana’s past when it nationalized companies.

Needless to say, the government was not amused. It decided that it would find ways of fighting back. President Bharrat Jagdeo publicly stated that he was bent on breaking the monopoly held by the telephone company. This must have played an integral part in the action to stall GT&T’s decision to offer its customers the ability to use their phone in any country to which they travel.

Then something clicked in my head. The government has a monopoly of the radio waves. Guyana has a solitary radio station and the government owns it. For years people have been applying for a radio licence and the government has ignored them. On one occasion, the government actually said that the state-owned radio station was not strong enough to face competition.

Now if I have a reluctance to dismantle my monopoly, why I should I insist that someone else dismantles his?

I hasten to say that I am not against Cel*Star. I welcome the competition. Things could only get better. When the news broke that a new telephone company was coming to Guyana people immediately found that they rarely got the message, “No circuits are available at this time” when they used their cellular phones.

Competition makes the world go round. That is why I sincerely think that ever since the government should have opened up radio. Instead, it is merging radio with television, building new studios, and using state funds to rehabilitate the equipment.