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BTC urged: Prioritise network over 5G with tower sale funds

• Data-carrying cables ‘desperately need upgrade’

• Management union chief: 5G faces site challenge

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

The proceeds from the sale and leaseback of the Bahamas Telecommunications Company’s (BTC) cell towers would be better invested in other parts of its network than 5G, a union leader argued yesterday.

Kenny Knowles, president of the Bahamas Communications and Public Managers Union (BCPMU), which represents BTC’s line staff told Tribune Business the Bahamas Domestic Submarine Network (BDSNi) that carries data and other traffic throughout this nation and to the world is in “desperate need of an upgrade” and must take priority over 5Gs roll-out.

A 39-year BTC veteran, who has played a part in the carrier’s transition from analogue to digital, then IP (Internet Protocol) technology, he added that investing the sale proceeds in improving a network that connects all Bahamian islands would drive greater returns than focusing solely on 5G (fifth generation) mobile infrastructure.

Speaking after Valentine Grimes, BTC’s vice-chairman, told this newspaper that “the intent” of the Davis administration is for a portion of the sales price to be reinvested in improving the Bahamian carrier’s services, Mr Knowles argued that 5G will only deliver value and a return on investment in the more densely populated islands of Nassau and Grand Bahama (Freeport).

And, to do this, he said BTC will need to erect more cell sites in closer proximity to each other to ensure there is complete network coverage. Mr Knowles said on New Providence, in particular, BTC as well as Aliv will be challenged with first locating, then acquiring or leasing, the necessary sites given that the island is so extensively developed already.

Questioning whether survey plans to identify potential tower sites, and a land acquisition plan, have already been drawn up, the BTC middle management union head said if these tasks are not accomplished within the next 12 months he will become concerned that Phoenix Tower International, which will acquire the carrier’s existing locations, has “sold the Government a dream”.

Mr Grimes, in an interview with Tribune Business on Sunday night, said the sale and leaseback of BTC’s existing cell tower sites will enable the carrier to monetise the value of its existing infrastructure sites. Some of the proceeds from the Phoenix deal, part of a wider $355m, six-jurisdiction deal involving other affiliates of the carrier’s ultimate parent, Liberty Latin America, will then be reinvested back into BTC.

Besides being used to improve BTC’s service quality, Mr Grimes said the sale monies will also finance 5G’s deployment. As part of the deal, Phoenix and Liberty Latin America are to construct a further 500 cell sites over the next five years across the six jurisdictions, although it is unclear how many will be developed in The Bahamas, in a move that could take the deal’s value to $407m.

Mr Knowles, though, while voicing approval that some of the Phoenix sale proceeds will be reinvested back into BTC, argued that the Davis administration re-evaluate their use and its broader strategic priorities for both the carrier itself and the wider communications sector.

“It’s interesting they say that 5G deployment is going to require more cell sites within closer radius of each other. Nassau’s challenge is geographical,” he explained. “The big challenge they are going to have with that is land acquisition. 5G is only worth the while in a densely environment. That’s going to be the challenge for 5G: How to get enough cell towers in a densely populated area.”

Mr Knowles said securing sufficient, and correct, cell tower sites for the existing Long-Term Evolution (LTE) 4G-plus network had its difficulties given that nearby residents had objected to some locations on health and other grounds.

And, pointing out that whole island coverage will be required for New Providence, he added: “It doesn’t make sense at all to only have it in downtown Nassau or Cable Beach. It has to be the whole island. Land acquisition is going to be a big challenge. The models are showing New Providence is not ideal for the 5G roll-out.

“We’ll see how that goes. It’s going to be interesting to see who has done a 5G study on deployment for New Providence. That requires a lot of cell sites in close proximity and the island is already congested.” Mr Knowles said Mr Grimes’ comments suggested some combination of Liberty, Phoenix and BTC have already discussed the issue with the Government.

“The only thing we would be interested in knowing is what is the timeline for 5G deployment,” he added. “It would be interesting to know the site acquisition plan. We should have a survey plan, a site acquisition in where those 5G towers will be situated to achieve optimum results, as well as have a budget to pay land owners for the sites.”

The BCPMU chief then voiced suspicions that Phoenix may have “pushed” the 5G roll-out plan to government knowing that it would get a portion of the original sales proceeds back as owner of the cell sites. “It’s not a win for BTC. 5G is down the road,” Mr Knowles argued. “There are greater needs in the data network that require support.

“The BDSNi network is in dire need of an upgrade. That is the submarine cable network that connects all the islands and Haiti. That network is more important to the operation of our country than 5G. 5G hits only New Providence and Grand Bahama.

“If I was the Government I’d think again about investing that in 5G because you will be investing in 5G to go back into Phoenix’s pockets. I’d take some of that money out of Phoenix’s hands and invest it in other parts of the network where it’s needed,” he continued.

“There are other areas in the business that desperately need upgrades more than 5G. It will be interesting to hear what their land acquisition plans are for 5G towers. If there’s no plan for land acquisition in the next 12 months, then that’s a dream Phoenix has sold them.”

The Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority (URCA) has pledged “to develop a road map” for deploying 5G (fifth generation) technology in The Bahamas after recent consultations with industry operators and the private sector.

The regulator said technologies other than 5G “may be more technically and economically feasible to serve more remote areas in The Bahamas” although it did not identify any specifics.

“URCA acknowledges Cable Bahamas/Aliv’s position that 5G technology will be initially used in The Bahamas to deliver existing mobile services more efficiently, not necessarily new ones, and that the 5G business case is based on revenue retention rather than additional revenues, which are difficult to obtain from customers who are used to unlimited use bundles and a saturated market, combined with high roll-out costs,” the regulator conceded.

“URCA is cognisant that there may need to be some amendments and/or additions to the existing regulatory framework in The Bahamas to facilitate 5G, including but not limited to assessing the need to issue additional spectrum; ensuring all mobile operators have access to fibre backhaul connectivity on reasonable terms; and/or facilitating site sharing where feasible.”

URCA said “affordable access to high-quality networks and carriage services in all regions of The Bahamas” remains one of its key objectives and goals under the communications sector policy.

“URCA is cognisant that advancements in technology are a catalyst for innovation and future development of The Bahamas. As such, it is crucial that cutting-edge technology such as 5G be available for consumption in The Bahamas where necessary,” it added.

Comments

birdiestrachan 5 months, 1 week ago

They own 51 percent they call the shots .It is not much the Government can do the Fnm papa fixed it.

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birdiestrachan 5 months, 1 week ago

Some land phones do not work BTC said the copper wire was stolen so there is no phone until they decide

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birdiestrachan 5 months, 1 week ago

I believe Mr Knowles he is on the ground he knows what he is talking about

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