Tuesday marked six months after Hurricane Irma. As we take time to look back at the many pleasant and unpleasant experiences throughout our lifetime — including the experiences we have gone through with past and present governments and all the promises they made and never kept — let me now take some time to deal with a subject that I have spoken about for years, which now needs immediate attention.
The various forms of communication used by the territory have evolved from the conch shell used by fishermen to today’s internet. With this advanced technology, communication in the territory has improved significantly. However, our phone services in the Virgin Islands are unreliable and very expensive.
Many of us remember the early days when our telephone service was provided by the government before Cable & Wireless took it over. As the demand for phone service grew in the 1980s, Boat Phone, which later became CCT, provided cell phone service via C&W, then C&W introduced cell phone service. We remember having to pay to make and receive calls via cell phone. Dissatisfaction with the service resulted in a call for more competition, which led to another cell phone carrier (Digicel). This competition did not improve cell phone service, but it eliminated the charge for received calls.
The creation of a regulatory body, called the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, did not improve cell phones services, landline services or internet services because the law creating this body apparently does not meet the 21st Century requirements.
As we approach the end of the first quarter of 2018, because of the poor phone and internet services we have been experiencing over the years, many people seem to think that another carrier would improve these services. While another carrier may provide additional employment, it will not improve services. Additionally, since there will be four carriers competing in a population of about 30,000 people, this would lead to higher prices because the weaker carriers would be forced out of business. Therefore, what we need is a public utilities commission that will not only regulate the telephone companies but also electricity, water, cable TV, cooking gas, gasoline and the passenger ferries. I have spoken about this for many years, and once again I am asking that action be taken on this matter urgently. However, before this body can be created, laws must be put in place that carry stiff financial penalties.
This commission must be made up of individuals not based on their political association but because of their independence and their ability to perform their duties by doing what is in the territory’s best interests.
We have been hearing over the years about a consumer protection agency, which I strongly support. However, at this time I want to address my greatest issue with the three carriers besides their bad service: their pricing. I have no knowledge how telephone providers increase their fees in the United Kingdom, Europe or elsewhere in the Caribbean, so I can only make my comments based on the United States system. Under that system, none of these entities can arbitrarily increase their fees. They must apply to the necessary commission to increase their rates. Hearings will then be held, which may take months as data is collected and testimony is taken from all concerned parties. A determination is then made to approve or disapprove the request — or approve a smaller increase than what was being sought.
I have concerns about two pricing practices: charging a monthly fee for a landline while simultaneously charging a per-minute charge for local calls; and charging a monthly fee for a landline to someone who is absent from their residence or small business for 30 days or more.
Let me give you an example of how stiff penalties work. Ferryboats registered in the Virgin Islands that service the USVI must go through US Coast Guard inspection in St. Thomas. If a ferry was built to carry 100 passengers and the Coast Guard authorises only 80 passengers, a $10,000 fine can be levied for every passenger over the 80-person limit.
Similarly stiff penalties are what we need to get the telecoms to understand their obligation to us. Therefore, we don’t need another carrier: We need to make sure our present carriers are in compliance with our laws or fine them appropriately. If they fail to pay their fines, and continue to provide inferior service, revoke their licence and then seek a replacement. But just adding another carrier is not the answer.