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TECHNOLOGY-GUYANA: Remove the Iron Grip, Say Citizens

Bert Wilkinson

GEORGETOWN, Dec 4 1999 (IPS) - The American-owned Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company (GT&T) is closely watching the dismantling of the longstanding Cable and Wireless monopoly in the Caribbean even as some groups in Guyana continue to call on government to remove the company’s iron grip on the country’s telephone service.

When the US Virgin Islands-based Atlantic Tele Network (ATN) paid 16.5 million dollars for 80 percent of the former Guyana Telecommunication Company back in early 1991, its lawyers ensured the new owners got what Cabinet Secretary Roger Luncheon today calls an “iron clad” monopoly licence that is now the subject of a growing debate.

But with the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal ruling against C&W’s monopolistic status recently and with the Jamaican operation signing an agreement for open competition and a new licence to take the place of the 25-year one granted in 1988, the focus is now on the GT&T’s position.

“We are going to restart a signature campaign against the company to begin the process of forcing it to give up its monopoly status, ” says Eileen Cox of the Guyana Consumers Association (GCA).”

Cox is one of a growing number of consumer advocates agitating against the company’s stranglehold of most aspects of telephone services.

The Trade and Industry Ministry, under which the utilities fall, says it has several times asked its legal department to conduct a thorough review of the contract agreed on by the previous Desmond Hoyte administration so as to come up with ways of easing out of it.

The current 20-year licence has a clause which allows for its renewal for a further 20 years.

Officials say the company has already run into serious trouble with the contract by failing to honour a section which mandates it to put in place, on average, 6,500 new lines each year. The current average is 2,000.

” That alone is a serious enough breach to warrant a revocation of the agreement, but the question is whether or not officials have the guts to do it, ” says one attorney.

In her criticism of the firm’s approach to its service in Guyana, Cox says that rather than concentrating on installing services such as caller identification, conference calling and call waiting, more emphasis should be placed on lines to customers, some of whom have been waiting some eight years to have a telephone installed in their homes.

As far as the company is concerned, rates approved by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) for rental of telephones as an example are way too low to fund the expansion programme according to company spokesman Lennox Cornette. And so it is just not complying.

“We have been in discussion with the government on several issues, but our monopoly is not one of them,” says Cornette. “And the rates we have from the PUC are unreasonable, not enough to do anything.”

Last year, consumers accustomed to paying less than one dollar per month for the rental of a telephone and less than three dollars for the service if they had made no long distance calls during the month, began to see the difference in their bills when the company was awarded between 45 and 60 percent increase for nearly every service it offers.

” We feel they are just milking the system and will one day pull out. That’s our feeling. We really need competition,” says Cox.

Almost four years ago, late President Cheddi Jagan had publicly threatened to give the firm the marching orders for its participation in the 100-million-dollar per annum international phone sex industry.

That came in the aftermath of an article by the Washington Post which named Guyana as one of the major players in the industry.

At the time, GT&T had said that up to 70 percent of its revenue came from its phone sex industry, but now it says this percentage has fallen to about half with other countries getting in on the act.

Jagan said the firm, employing about 500 Guyanese, had only helped to ruin the country’s image.

Meanwhile, Lance McCaskey, a former senior PUC official says the time has come for the local courts to take a new look at the monopoly in the interest of development.

” I am saying that in the interest of the public and Guyana, the courts can decide that a climate of competition would do good for Guyana.

Apart from an iron grip on wire transmission, the contract covers the GT&T for public telephone boxes, radio telephones, with a few exceptions and facilities supported by utility poles and telegraph transmissions

” The courts in the Caribbean are taking a different view of monopolies and those in Guyana should do the same in the interest of the public,” says McCaskey.

 
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TECHNOLOGY-GUYANA: Remove the Iron Grip, Say Citizens

Bert Wilkinson

GEORGETOWN, Dec 2 1999 (IPS) - The American-owned Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company (GT&T) is closely watching the dismantling of the longstanding Cable and Wireless monopoly in the Caribbean even as some groups in Guyana continue to call on government to remove the company’s iron grip on the country’s telephone service.
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