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Cwc: 'No Major Problems' With Gov't Over Btc

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

THE Bahamas Telecommunications Company's (BTC) majority owner yesterday said it did not "anticipate significant problems" with the newly-elected Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) government, and its top executive plans to meet Prime Minister Perry Christie in three weeks' time to further build their relationship.

Tony Rice, the London-based Cable & Wireless Communications' (CWC) chief executive, said that despite the change in government in the Bahamas, the "underlying driver" for the Christie administration - as it had been for the FNM - was that BTC provided the right infrastructure, services and prices to benefit its customers and the wider economy.

In a subtle acknowledgment to the PLP's previous opposition to BTC's privatisation and the sale of a 51 per cent stake to CWC, Mr Rice said that "sometimes you have to look a bit beyond the political rhetoric", suggesting that what politicians said in Opposition, then did in government, often turned out to be two different things.

Speaking as CWC announced its annual financial results for the year to end-March 2012, Mr Rice was responding to a question from a London-based financial analyst, who suggested that the Christie administration had been "less than diplomatic" in its previous comments about CWC and the BTC privatisation.

The analyst asked: "You've [CWC] made some very diplomatic comments. The incoming government has made some less than diplomatic comments. Can you give us an assurance that political rhetoric will not turn into financial problems for you?"

In response, and choosing his words carefully, Mr Rice said: "On the Bahamas point, a couple of things.

"We're in countries because the Government wants us there. We deliver world-class telecommunications to small and medium-sized countries, which is something that in other circumstances they might not be able to get. They [governments] don't always appreciate it......."

The CWC chief executive added, though, that this perception was changing, especially as the "mobile revolution" had lost some of its impetus. Countries, he added, were increasingly recognising the value of high bandwidth broadband and fixed-line infrastructure, and the high speed data networks these provided - vital to attracting foreign investment into "tax-free zones".

"We are politically neutral," Mr Rice emphasised to his London audience. "We do not align with any government. Our job is to deliver, for the Government of the day, the consumers and the businesses, of the country. That's what we aim to do."

While in Opposition, the PLP opposed both BTC's privatisation and sale of the 51 per cent controlling equity interest to CWC's Caribbean regional affiliate, LIME. It has repeatedly made noises about taking back the majority stake in the company, and its election manifesto pledged vaguely to "renegotiate" the agreement with CWC, without specifying what it would look to change.

Tribune Business reported last week how London-based telecommunications analysts who cover CWC had warned that any moves to alter, even tear-up, the BTC privatisation agreement would send a very negative message to current - and potential - foreign investors looking at the Bahamas. For they would now have to factor political risk into their decision-making.

But Mr Rice insisted yesterday: "There's no fear or favour. When a political party's in government, we talk to the Opposition to keep them up to speed with what we're doing."

He pointed to the example of Jamaica, where CWC's LIME affiliate had kept talking to People's National Party (PNP) leader, Portia Simpson-Miller, and now-telecoms minister, Phillip Paulwell, when they were in Opposition, as well as then-prime ministers Bruce Golding and Andrew Holness.

"That's a core competency of ours. It needs to be," Mr Rice said of CWC's ability to maintain contact with all political parties in the countries it operates in. After all, as in the Bahamas, their governments often are the minority equity partners.

"The new government in the Bahamas wants to grow investment, grow the economy and deliver financial success in the Bahamas," the CWC chief executive added. "That's exactly what we want to do.

"We've already engaged with them, and I'm going out there in three weeks. I hope to meet with the Prime Minister there to further those discussions, and we anticipate, yes, that they will have particular needs that they want to address, as their agenda will be slightly different from the previous government.

"But the wider driver for both [political parties] is to get the right infrastructure, the right pricing and product capabilities for their consumers and businesses, and to get on with delivering that."

Mr Christie has himself taken responsibility for the Government's relations with BTC, placing that within the Office of the Prime Minister's portfolio. Among the critical decisions he must make are who will be the Government's three directors, including the vice-chairman, on BTC's Board of Directors, as their relationship with their CWC/LIME counterparts will be critical.

And, in a nod to the PLP's stated Opposition to the BTC privatisation, Mr Rice said yesterday: "Sometimes you have to look a bit beyond the political rhetoric. Politicians make these statements, take a particular position, and you only have to look at recent events in other countries when they come into office."

Taking a particular example from CWC's portfolio, Mr Rice said that four years ago the incoming Maldives government, while in Opposition, had said they would renationalise that country's phone company, in which CWC held a then-minority stake. Nine months after that government took office, they had sold a majority stake to CWC, Mr Rice said, "because they realised we had done a good job there".

Whether there is a similar outcome in the Bahamas remains to be seen, but Mr Rice added of CWC's relationship with the Government: "It's our job to manage that, and we'll see how that goes.

"I don't anticipate significant problems, but I do understand the need to get to know them [the PLP government], understand them and work with them. That's what they'll do."

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