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BTC ‘cash cow not giving whole milk’

BTC Nassau Headquarters.

BTC Nassau Headquarters.

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

A union president will today submit “a list of concerns” to the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) over its cell tower sale after yesterday’s call with its top executive “left more questions than answers”.

Sherry Benjamin, head of the Bahamas Communications and Public Officers Union (BCPOU), which represents BTC line staff, told Tribune Business she was no clearer in understanding how the carrier and Bahamian people benefit from the Phoenix Tower International deal despite yesterday’s phone meeting with Sameer Bhatti, its chief executive.

Disclosing that Mr Bhatti described the sale and leaseback of 345 BTC cell tower sites to Phoenix “as a shareholder’s deal”, indicating that both the Government and Liberty Latin America had approved it, the latter as controlling owner, Ms Benjamin demanded that the Davis administration explain its rationale and why the agreement will benefit The Bahamas.

She told this newspaper that the agreement had reawakened memories of “the horrible deal” that occurred in 2011 when BTC was privatised via the sale of a controlling equity interest to its immediate parent, Cable & Wireless Communications (CWC).

Arguing that the then-Ingraham administration had “sold a cash cow”, she added: “We’re no longer getting whole milk from the cow. We are getting treated milk mixed with preservatives.” Given this backdrop, Ms Benjamin said it was vital to understand whether the Phoenix deal “is going to further sink us or pull us out of the hole.”

Valentine Grimes, BTC’s vice-chairman, told this newspaper on Sunday evening that “the intent” of the Davis administration is for a portion of the Phoenix sales price to be reinvested in improving BTC’s services and the roll-out of 5G (fifth generation) mobile phone technology.

He said the sale and leaseback of BTC’s existing 345 cell tower sites will enable the carrier to monetise the value of its existing infrastructure as part of a wider $355m, six-jurisdiction deal involving other affiliates of its ultimate parent, Liberty Latin America. The deal proceeds were touted as increasing to $407m when Phoenix constructs a further 500 sites across the same six countries over the next five years.

Ms Benjamin, though, said she and other BCPOU executives came away from the phone call with Mr Bhatti far from convinced about the deal’s merits. “What he said to me, I did not get,” she told Tribune Business. “We have more questions than answers after the conversation with him. I asked him how is this deal going to benefit the Bahamian public or Bahamian people on the whole.

“We’ve asked for an in-person meeting where us can sit with the management union and line staff union to explain this whole deal and how it impacts our members. He advised that he didn’t have all the answers. He asked us to put our concerns in writing, whatever questions we have, and he will make sure that those person who can answer relevant questions are available to give the answers we are seeking.”

Explaining that some of the questions she and her general-secretary were asking were technical in nature, Ms Benjamin added: “Tomorrow [today] we will provide him with a list of our concerns we have and hopefully, in short order we will have that meeting and get the answers to our questions... I told the chief executive I needed more clarity.”

The BCPOU president acknowledged suspicions that the Phoenix deal was driven primarily by BTC’s two parent entities, CWC and Liberty Latin America, and that the main benefits will be felt by those two companies rather than here in The Bahamas.

“He’s [Mr Bhatti] saying this was a shareholder’s deal, so both major shareholders, the Government and Liberty, decided this was in the best interest of the business,” Ms Benjamin said, adding that it was critical for the Davis administration to explain why it was backing the Phoenix agreement.

“None of my questions have been answered,” she added. “I’m still trying to figure out the benefit of this to The Bahamas, to Bahamian citizens, to the Bahamian workers at BTC. What is the benefit of this tower sale, and I did not get that from my chief executive today...

“I’m trying to figure out why is our government agreeing to it. If they know something we don’t know, that it will be a benefit, they need to explain that to the Bahamian people. They work for us. They need to explain why they are going through with this deal and what benefit it is.

“I’m still trying to figure out what these people are thinking and whose interests they are doing it in. I am not a political person. I support a political party, but am not an overly political person. I will say what right is and wrong. It could not be implemented in The Bahamas if our government is not OK with it. No one comes into this country and does as they wish without the approval of the Government of The Bahamas.”

Ms Benjamin said her understanding was that just the cell towers themselves, and the land upon which their base footing is situated, are included in the sale and leaseback with Phoenix. The latter will take over ownership of the towers, and be responsible for their maintenance and upkeep.

Pointing out that a number of BTC’s cell sites are leased from other landowners, and not owned by the carrier or government, the union chief queried the practical value of the deal given that she understood BTC will still own and be responsible for equipment located on, or attached to, the towers.

Ms Benjamin said the sale has revived painful memories over what has occurred in the 12 years since BTC’s controlling interest was sold to CWC, adding: “We already got a bad deal with the sale to CWC in the first place. That was a horrible deal. This deal they’ve entered into, is it going to further sink us or pull us out of the hole we are in?

“I think The Bahamas, the Bahamian people, need some answers to that. We sold a cash cow, and are not even getting whole milk. We are getting treated milk; milk mixed with something else. We need to get whole milk from the cow. We’re getting milk mixed with preservatives.

“How is this going to benefit the Bahamian people? What are the benefits. We are losing our land. A lot of the land involved I presume is government’s. The Government is us. If they are taking our land, and selling it, what’s in it for us? What are we getting out of this deal. We are not getting answers.”

Ms Benjamin added that she feared a similar scenario to the post-CWC deal, where BTC staff and customers were still waiting two to three years later for the promised benefits to materialise. “If you remember when they were talking about the sale of BTC, they were talking about how this was going to improve communications in this country, how this was going to improve services. We’re still waiting,” she said.

“All of those services we were already doing, and could have done without the company being sold. We gave the company away.... At this point I am questioning successive governments, both political parties, as to who they have an interest in; whether they have an interest for the Bahamian people or foreign interests because BTC is getting a raw deal....

“I’m getting a lot of every day people as I move about in the streets asking how are you letting them sell our towers, how is this supposed to benefit us? I tell them: ‘When I find out I’ll tell you, but I don’t know’. We need answers.”

Comments

birdiestrachan 5 months, 1 week ago

They own the controlling shares. Does the government have any say in the matter do they just have to go along I am not sure. But I sm sure the Fnm papa should hang his head n shame

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themessenger 5 months, 1 week ago

BTC wasn't worth sh..t when it was Bahamian owned, and it isn't worth a wet fart under its present management either.

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moncurcool 5 months, 1 week ago

People still use the crap service of BTC?

One of the best things in this country was the day that monopoly was sold.

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birdiestrachan 5 months, 1 week ago

They have been selling it for a whole lot of money. Just the Fnm papa children talking foolishness

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Sickened 5 months, 1 week ago

If you want him to stay focused you need to send him some meds.

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Sickened 5 months, 1 week ago

If BTC fires the employees that were responsible for maintenance of these towers then the deal may have a little bit of merit, but I'm sure the Government approval of the deal was based on no staff reductions.

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