- Written by CLAIRE SHEFCHIK
- Published: 05 December 2017
In recent United Kingdom studies, the Virgin Islands ranked 181st in the world on broadband internet affordability and only slightly better on speed, but to many customers these rankings did not come as a surprise.
“It’s weird having all the bars on your phone light up but you still can’t receive or place a call,” said Belle Vue resident Blu Wright. “Or not being able to stream a movie without allowing it to load for an hour or two, while still having to pay a hefty bill just because you need to be connected to the world.”
Both studies were conducted by BDRC Continental, the UK’s largest independent research consultancy, and Cable.co.uk, a firm that helps British consumers comparison shop for telecommunications services.
For the affordability study, which was released this month, Cable.co.uk analysed 3,000 broadband packages around the globe, including conducting four tests in the VI on March 17.
According to the study, the average customer in the territory paid $146.05 per month for internet service. The only more expensive countries in the Caribbean region were Haiti, where customers paid $224.19 per month on average; the Cayman Islands, where they paid $175.27; and Antigua and Barbuda, where they paid $153.78.
The cheapest Caribbean country was St. Martin, which ranked number 19 for its average monthly internet package of $20.72.
Customers in the neighbouring US Virgin Islands paid $88.02 per month on average.
For the speed study, which was released in August, Cable.co.uk analysed more than 63 million broadband speed tests for the same countries.
The VI was ranked 73 out of 196 countries, with the average speed of 5.49 megabits per second, meaning it could take users over three hours to download a full-length movie.
Within the Caribbean, the territory finished around the middle of the pack for speed, with the Cayman Islands coming out on top at 13.15 megabits per second — meaning it would take a little over an hour to download the same movie.
The USVI got speeds almost equal to the VI at 5.14 megabits per second.
Mr. Wright said he refused to place the blame for the low rankings on the telecom companies, which currently consist of FLOW, CCT and Digicel. Of those, FLOW is the only one that offers broadband internet.
“Other countries that have FLOW … and Digicel are far better and lower than what we get here,” he said.
In his opinion, simple enforcement or the addition of a fourth company, preferably a US company like Sprint or AT&T, would solve the issue.
Before telecommunications in the VI were liberalised in 2006, FLOW (which then was known as Cable & Wireless, and later as LIME) had a statutory monopoly on landline and broadband services, though CCT provided cell phone service.
The Telecommunications Act of 2006 broke up this monopoly and created the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission. Eventually, licences were granted to LIME, CCT, BVI Cable TV (which does not provide phone or internet service) and Digicel. However, FLOW remains the only company that offers broadband service.
According to the act, the TRC is responsible for regulating the telecommunications sector. The commission “establishes and monitors the implementation of national telecommunications standards and ensures compliance, and is responsible for the regulation of licensees and authorisation holders and for ensuring fair competition among licensees.”
A new framework
Guy Malone, CEO of the TRC, declined to comment until the release of a new Spectrum Management Framework, the second since the commission published its first framework in 2011.
“Given the continued growth in the demand for mobile data services, the emergence of 5G standards and the development of new and innovative services, the commission believes it is important to revise its framework,” Mr. Malone said in an earlier statement. “In particular, this includes promoting fair and sustainable competition in the sector as well as encouraging the development of new and innovative services and a higher quality of service throughout the Virgin Islands.”
International advisors from Frontier Economics Ltd., an economic consultancy with offices throughout Europe, are assisting TRC with its development of the new framework. Mr. Malone said that in the coming weeks, the commission expects to publish a consultation on its draft proposals and solicit feedback from stakeholders.
According to section 29 of the Telecommunications Act, prices for telecommunications services are determined by the market, except when there is only one licensee, when one licensee dominates the market, or when the commission detects unfair pricing or unfair competition.
Nadia James-Harris, marketing and communications director for FLOW, declined to comment on the studies.
‘Exorbitant’ phone bill
Diane Howe, an educational researcher who telecommuted from her home in Carrot Bay for ten years before moving away in 2013, described her phone bill then as “exorbitant.”
“I almost never made it through an entire weekly one-to-three-hour session without the internet going down and/or the current going off at least once,” she added.
She sometimes resorted to a mobile phone or landline when service went down, but that was also very expensive and the speed wasn’t adequate for complex work, she explained.
“My colleagues were frustrated,” she said.
In the end she had to physically travel to her office in Canada once per year in order to get the job done.
Ms. Howe agreed with the report’s findings, and said she would never telecommute from the VI again until service improves.
“I have done similar work from other places such as Italy, the UK, Canada and even other Caribbean islands without the constant … internet issues I had in the VI,” she said.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 30, 2017 print edition.