By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas Telecommunications Company’s (BTC) ultimate parent is proposing a “huge” investment to extend its fibre network past another 25,000 homes, not the buy-out of the government’s stake in the carrier.
Garfield “Garry” Sinclair, BTC’s chief executive, told Tribune Business “nothing could be further from the truth” in response to suggestions from the president of its line staff union that Liberty Latin America (LiLAC) offered to acquire the government’s 49 percent stake in the business when its senior executives met the prime minister recently.
The BTC chief revealed that the only concession sought by Liberty was a short-term “tax holiday” on import duties that would be levied on the equipment required to extend the fibre-to-the-home network - something that it had agreed could also be granted to Cable Bahamas/Aliv for their rival network.
If this investment proceeded, Mr Sinclair said 70 percent of New Providence homes would be passed by a combination of BTC’s fibre-to-the-home network and copper network overlay to give all customers access to “must have” high speed Internet services.
Arguing that Liberty and Cable & Wireless Communications (CWC), its subsidiary and BTC’s immediate parent, were “putting their money where their mouth is” through the proposed investment, Mr Sinclair said the plan would enhance “the green shoots” of recovery that the former government monopoly can see in its business.
He revealed that the loss of mobile subscribers to Aliv was reaching “a plateau”, with BTC “well ahead” of its 2019 target to cut “net churn to half the rate” of 2018. And BTC was said to be adding 200 fixed-line voice and broadband Internet customers a day - a rate that Mr Sinclair described as “unprecedented”.
The BTC chief said this effort had been boosted by “a restructured sales infrastructure” that involved moving its franchisees from billing/collection agencies to selling the carriers products and services. He added “the mean time to install” new customers and give them service had been reduced by over 80 percent - from 500 hours to 80 hours average - in less than a year.
Whereas previously franchisees had received a 3 percent commission on the customer payments they collected, this has now been switched to the products and services they sell. Mr Sinclair also revealed that BTC’s sales effort had been “operating at half capacity” because its franchisees’ stores had not been connected to the carrier’s billing and provisioning systems.
This fault has now been rectified, and Mr Sinclair said BTC was already “seeing results” from simple but fundamental, common sense reforms to the way its business is structured and operated.
He also warned that renationalising BTC, as some trade union leaders had urged the Government to do in the wake of controversial comments by Balan Nair, Liberty Latin America’s chief executive, would be “an absolute disaster” given the demands of a fast-evolving, competitive global communications market.
Responding to the “suspicions” of Dino Rolle, the Bahamas Communications and Public Officers Union’s (BCPOU) president, who suggested the “investment proposal” submitted to the Government was for Liberty to buy-out its BTC stake, Mr Sinclair blasted: “Nothing could be further from the truth.
“There was no proposal to acquire the other 49 percent, certainly not during the meeting I was at with the Prime Minister a couple of weeks ago. That was the only proposal.
“The proviso was made that there needed to be a bit of a duty holiday, which could be provided to the competitor as well. We didn’t want any special favour, and it didn’t have to be interminable - it could be 90 days, just to bring in equipment to pass another 25,000 homes.”
Mr Sinclair declined to put a figure on the proposed investment, but described it as “huge” and “not just an investment in BTC, but the people and economy of The Bahamas”.
Revealing that Liberty’s commitment to the Government had come following an “operations review” conducted by Mr Nair and his fellow executives on BTC, Mr Sinclair added: “When passing another 25,000 homes with fibre-to-the-home is done, and added to the 35,000-37,000 homes passed to-date, 70 percent of homes [on New Providence] will have high speed Internet access.
“That will ensure broadband speeds of well over 100 megabytes per second. We’re gaining a tremendous amount of success selling off of this footprint. We’re selling upwards of 200 revenue generating units per day, which is unprecedented for us, as we’re selling with a network that’s robust and provided first-class Internet access. Internet access is the must-have utility.”
The BTC chief added that the carrier intended to be The Bahamas’ “partner of choice” in enabling Nassau and its residents to “leverage technology” to the point where they enjoyed a “smart city” and “smart homes”, respectively.
“If we can get a country like The Bahamas connected to that kind of speed, that will put you well on the way to creating a smart city and smart government,” Mr Sinclair said. “There is a road map here for The Bahamas because it is so advanced, and GDP per capita so high, and the average revenue per user in The Bahamas is so high. We’re putting in infrastructure to place The Bahamas in the 21st century world.”
Elsewhere, Mr Sinclair said BTC’s loss of mobile subscribers to Aliv had been on “a fairly steep decline”, with the rate of attrition falling by 32,000 in 2018 compared to the prior year. He added that 2019 to-date had produced further evidence that these customer losses were starting to bottom out.
“The target was to cut prior year churn in half,” Mr Sinclair said of BTC’s 2019 mobile targets. “We’re well ahead of that target, and would have been even further ahead but we made some decisions with respect to subsidised handsets and our investment in subsidised handsets.
“We’re going to revisit that in the second half, and you’ll find us way more competitive there.” He added that BTC also planned to introduce a “simplified” range of new mobile plans, along with a “fresh-fixed line proposition”, that customers will find “particularly compelling” heading into the 2019 second half and final quarter.
Describing BTC as “the provider of choice” on business solutions and services, Mr Sinclair added that the carrier was moving to improve the 30 percent broadband Internet market share, and 10 percent TV/video share, that it enjoyed when he took over in August 2018.
“We’ve done a ton of work in restructuring our sales infrastructure,”he told Tribune Business. “Our franchisees used to be bill collection agencies; we were paying them 3 percent commission for collecting bills.
“We’ve totally reorganised the commission structure to incentivise them to sell products and services, as opposed to bill collection. We’ve reduced the number of franchisees so they’re not falling over each other. We’ve rationalised the whole network.
“I think we separated from between five to 10 franchisees, and have reduced the number of stores in the footprint,” Mr Sinclair added. “We’ve completely reorganised the commission structure so they’re incentivised to do the things we want them to do.
“They are connected to our billing and provisioning system, which they weren’t before. They can now actually sign up a customer and get it in our provisioning system so that they are scheduled in real time, rather than going on a waiting list. We’ve done the heavy lifting to improve the retail store capacity.”
Mr Sinclair said the failure to connect BTC franchisees to the billing and provisioning system had meant the carrier was functioning “at half our sales capacity”. He admitted: “Where we’ve fallen down is in our sales capacity. We had half the retail network incapable of selling the fixed network because they were not connected to the billing and provisioning system.
“We had people collecting bills instead of selling products and services on the ground. We’re now seeing results and are getting results.” BTC is also encouraging its franchisees to engage in door-to-door and pop-up sales as a means of going directly to consumers rather than waiting for them to visit them.